Skip to main content

Full text of "Japan's Decision for War in 1941: Some Enduring Lessons"

See other formats


JAPAN'S DECISION FOR WAR IN 1941: 
SOME ENDURING LESSONS 



Jeffrey Record 



February 2009 

Visit our website for other free publication 

downloads 

http://www.StrategicStudiesInstitute.army.mil/ 

To rate this publication click here. 

The views expressed in this report are those of the author and 
do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the 
Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. 
Government. This report is cleared for public release; distribution 
is unlimited. 



This publication is subject to Title 17, United States Code, Sections 
101 and 105. It is in the public domain, and may not be copy- 
righted. 



Comments pertaining to this report are invited and should be 
forwarded to: Director, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War 
College, 122 Forbes Ave, Carlisle, PA 17013-5244. 



All Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) publications are available 
on the SSI homepage for electronic dissemination. Hard copies 
of this report also may be ordered from our homepage. SSI's 
homepage address is: www.StrategicStudiesInstitute.army.mil. 



The Strategic Studies Institute publishes a monthly e-mail 
newsletter to update the national security community on the 
research of our analysts, recent and forthcoming publications, and 
upcoming conferences sponsored by the Institute. Each newsletter 
also provides a strategic commentary by one of our research 
analysts. If you are interested in receiving this newsletter, please 
subscribe on our homepage at www.StrategicStudiesInstitute.army. 
mil/ newsletter/. 



ISBN 1-58487-378-7 



ii 



CONTENTS 

Foreword v 

Biographical Sketch of the Author vi 

Summary vii 

Introduction: A "Strategic Imbecility"? 1 

The Presumption of Irrationality 2 

Japanese Aggression and U.S. Policy Responses, 

1937-41 12 

Japanese Assumptions 24 

Japanese Decisionmaking 31 

Failed Deterrence 39 

Conclusions 47 

Lessons for Today 51 

Endnotes 60 



in 



FOREWORD 

Japan's decision to attack the United States in 1941 is 
widely regarded as irrational to the point of suicidal. How 
could Japan hope to survive a war with, much less defeat, an 
enemy possessing an invulnerable homeland and an industrial 
base 10 times that of Japan? The Pacific War was one that Japan 
was always going to lose, so how does one explain Tokyo's 
decision? Did the Japanese recognize the odds against them? 
Did they have a concept of victory, or at least of avoiding 
defeat? Or did the Japanese prefer a lost war to an unacceptable 
peace? 

Dr. Jeffrey Record takes a fresh look at Japan's decision 
for war, and concludes that it was dictated by Japanese 
pride and the threatened economic destruction of Japan by 
the United States. He believes that Japanese aggression in 
East Asia was the root cause of the Pacific War, but argues 
that the road to war in 1941 was built on American as well 
as Japanese miscalculations and that both sides suffered from 
cultural ignorance and racial arrogance. Record finds that 
the Americans underestimated the role of fear and honor in 
Japanese calculations and overestimated the effectiveness 
of economic sanctions as a deterrent to war, whereas the 
Japanese underestimated the cohesion and resolve of an 
aroused American society and overestimated their own martial 
prowess as a means of defeating U.S. material superiority. He 
believes that the failure of deterrence was mutual, and that 
the descent of the United States and Japan into war contains 
lessons of great and continuing relevance to American foreign 
policy and defense decisionmakers. 

The Strategic Studies Institute is pleased to offer this mono- 
graph as a contribution to the national security debate over the 
use of force to advance the objectives of U.S. foreign policy. 



DOUGLAS C. LOVELACE, JR. 

Director 

Strategic Studies Institute 



BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF THE AUTHOR 



JEFFREY RECORD is a well-known defense policy 
critic and teaches strategy at the Air War College in 
Montgomery, Alabama. He has served as a pacification 
advisor in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam 
War, Rockefeller Younger Scholar on the Brookings 
Institution's Defense Analysis Staff, and Senior Fellow 
at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, the Hudson 
Institute, and the BDM International Corporation. Dr. 
Record also has extensive Capitol Hill experience, 
serving as Legislative Assistant for National Security 
Affairs to Senators Sam Nunn and Lloyd Bentsen, 
and later as a Professional Staff Member of the Senate 
Armed Services Committee. He is the author of eight 
books and over a dozen monographs, including Beating 
Goliath: Why Insurgencies Win; Dark Victory: America's 
Second War Against Iraq; Making War, Thinking History: 
Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Uses of Force from 
Korea to Kosovo; Hollow Victory, A Contrary View of the 
Gulf War, The Wrong War, Why We Lost in Vietnam; 
and Bounding the Global War on Terrorism. Dr. Record 
received his doctorate at the Johns Hopkins School of 
Advanced International Studies. 



VI 



SUMMARY 

The Japanese decision to initiate war against the 
United States in 1941 continues to perplex. Did the 
Japanese recognize the odds against them? How did 
they expect to defeat the United States? The presump- 
tion of irrationality is natural, given Japan's acute im- 
perial overstretch in 1941 and America's overwhelm- 
ing industrial might and latent military power. The 
Japanese decision for war, however, must be seen in 
the light of the available alternatives in the fall of 1941, 
which were either national economic suffocation or 
surrender of Tokyo's empire on the Asian mainland. 
Though Japanese aggression in East Asia was the root 
cause of the Pacific War, the road to Pearl Harbor was 
built on American as well as Japanese miscalculations, 
most of them mired in mutual cultural ignorance and 
racial arrogance. 

Japan's aggression in China, military alliance with 
Hitler, and proclamation of a "Greater East Asian 
Co-Prosperity Sphere" that included resource-rich 
Southeast Asia were major milestones along the road to 
war, but the proximate cause was Japan's occupation of 
southern French Indochina in July 1941, which placed 
Japanese forces in a position to grab Malaya, Singapore, 
and the Dutch East Indies. Japan's threatened conquest 
of Southeast Asia, which in turn would threaten 
Great Britain's ability to resist Nazi aggression in 
Europe, prompted the administration of Franklin D. 
Roosevelt to sanction Japan by imposing an embargo 
on U.S. oil exports upon which the Japanese economy 
was critically dependent. Yet the embargo, far from 
deterring further Japanese aggression, prompted a 
Tokyo decision to invade Southeast Asia. By mid-1941 
Japanese leaders believed that war with the United 



States was inevitable and that it was imperative to 
seize the Dutch East Indies, which offered a substitute 
for dependency on American oil. The attack on Pearl 
Harbor was essentially a flanking raid in support of 
the main event, which was the conquest of Malaya, 
Singapore, the Indies, and the Philippines, 

Japan's decision for war rested on several as- 
sumptions, some realistic, others not. The first was 
that time was working against Japan — i.e., the longer 
they took to initiate war with the United States, the 
dimmer its prospects for success. The Japanese also 
assumed they had little chance of winning a protracted 
war with the United States but hoped they could force 
the Americans into a murderous, island-by-island 
slog across the Central and Southwestern Pacific that 
would eventually exhaust American will to fight on to 
total victory. The Japanese believed they were racially 
and spiritually superior to the Americans, whom 
they regarded as an effete, creature-comforted people 
divided by political factionalism and racial and class 
strife. 

U.S. attempts to deter Japanese expansion into 
the Southwestern Pacific via the imposition of harsh 
economic sanctions, redeployment of the U.S. Fleet from 
southern California to Pearl Harbor, and the dispatch 
of B-17 long-range bombers to the Philippines all failed 
because the United States insisted that Japan evacuate 
both Indochina and China as the price for a restoration 
of U.S. trade. The United States demanded, in effect, 
that Japan abandon its empire, and by extension its 
aspiration to become a great power, and submit to the 
economic dominion of the United States — something 
no self-respecting Japanese leader could accept. 

The Japanese-American road to the Pacific War in 
1941 yields several enduring lessons of particular rele- 



vance for today's national security decisionmakers: 

1. Fear and honor, "rational" or not, can motivate 
as much as interest. 

2. There is no substitute for knowledge of a potential 
adversary's history and culture. 

3. Deterrence lies in the mind of the deterree, not 
the deterrer. 

4. Strategy must always inform and guide opera- 
tions. 

5. Economic sanctioning can be tantamount to an 
act of war. 

6. The presumption of moral or spiritual superiority 
can fatally discount the consequences of an enemy's 
material superiority. 

7. "Inevitable" war easily becomes a self-fulfilling 
prophesy. 



IX 



JAPAN'S DECISION FOR WAR IN 1941: 
SOME ENDURING LESSONS 

Introduction: A "Strategic Imbecility"? 

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 
continues to perplex. American naval historian Samuel 
Eliot Morison called Tokyo's decision for war against 
the United States "a strategic imbecility." 1 How, in 
mid-1941, could Japan, militarily mired in China and 
seriously considering an opportunity for war with the 
Soviet Union, even think about yet another war, this 
one against a distant country with a 10-fold industrial 
superiority? The United States was not only stronger; 
it lay beyond Japan's military reach. The United States 
couldout-producejapaninevery category of armaments 
as well as build weapons, such as long-range bombers, 
that Japan could not; and though Japan could fight a 
war in East Asia and the Western Pacific, it could not 
threaten the American homeland. In attacking Pearl 
Harbor, Japan elected to fight a geographically limited 
war against an enemy capable of waging a total war 
against the Japanese home islands themselves. 

Did the Japanese recognize the odds against them? 
What could possibly prompt such a reckless course 
of action as the attack on Pearl Harbor? Fatalism? 
Delusional reasoning? Madness? Was there no 
acceptable alternative to war with the United States 
in 1941? And if not, how did Tokyo expect to compel 
the United States to accept Japanese hegemony in East 
Asia? Did the Japanese have a concept of victory, or 
at least of avoiding defeat? Or were they simply, as 
New York congressman Hamilton Fish declared the 
day after Pearl Harbor, a "stark, raving mad" people 
who, by attacking the United States, had "committed 
military, naval, and national suicide"? 2 



What lessons can be drawn from the Japanese 
decision for war in 1941? From U.S.-Japanese policy 
interaction during the months leading to Pearl Harbor? 
Are there lessons of value to today's national security 
decisionmakers? 

The Presumption of Irrationality. 

The Pacific War arose out of Japan's drive for 
national glory and economic security via the conquest 
of East Asia and the Roosevelt administration's belief 
that it could check Japan's bid for an Asian empire via 
trade sanctions and military deployments. The Japanese 
sought to free themselves from economic dependence 
on the United States, whereas the Americans sought 
to use that dependence to contain Japanese imperial 
ambitions. The Japanese sought to overturn the 
territorial status quo in Asia, whereas the United 
States sought to preserve it. Given the scope of Japan's 
ambitions, which included the expulsion of Western 
power and influence from Southeast Asia, and given 
Japan's alliance with Nazi Germany (against whom 
the United States was tacitly allied with Great Britain), 
war with the United States was probably inevitable by 
the end of 1941 even though Japanese prospects for 
winning a war with the United States were minimal. 

The disaster that awaited Japan in its war with the 
United States was rooted in a fatal excess of ambition 
over power. Japan' s imperial ambitions, which included 
Soviet territory in Northeast Asia as well as China and 
Western-controlled territory in Southeast Asia, lay 
beyond Japan's material capacity. Japan wanted to be 
a great power of the first rank like the United States, 
Great Britain, and Germany but lacked the industrial 
base and military capacity to become one. Moreover, 



Japan sought both a continental empire over the 
teeming populations of the Asian mainland, as well as 
a maritime empire in the Southwestern Pacific — a tall 
order given China's rising nationalism and the global 
naval superiority of Great Britain and the United States. 
Few Japanese leaders appreciated the limits of Japan's 
power; on the contrary, many had wildly exaggerated 
ideas of Japan's destiny and ability to fulfill it. 

The presumption of Japanese irrationality is natural 
given Japan's acute imperial overstretch in 1941 and 
the huge disparity between Japan's industrial base 
and military power and America's industrial base 
and latent military power. Dean Acheson, who in 
1941 was Assistant Secretary of State for Economic 
Affairs, declared before Pearl Harbor that "no rational 
Japanese could believe that an attack on us could result 
in anything but disaster for his country." 3 Secretary of 
War Henry L. Stimson believed the Japanese, "however 
wicked their intentions, would have the good sense 
not to get involved in a war with the United States." 4 
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto certainly had good sense. 
In October 1940 he warned that "[t]o fight the United 
States is like fighting the whole world. . . . Doubtless I 
shall die aboard the Nagato [his flagship]. Meanwhile, 
Tokyo will be burnt to the ground three times." 5 Barely 
2 months before Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto predicted: 

It is obvious that a Japanese-American war will become 
a protracted one. As long as the tides of war are in 
our favor, the United States will never stop fighting. 
As a consequence, the war will continue for several 
years, during which [our] material [resources] will be 
exhausted, vessels and arms will be damaged, and they 
can be replaced only with great difficulties. Ultimately 
we will not be able to contend with [the United States]. 
As a result of war the people's livelihood will become 
indigent . . . and it is hard not to imagine [that] the 



situation will become out of control. We must not start a 
war with so little chance of success. 6 

Postwar assessments are no less condemnatory. 
"The Japanese bet, in 1941," wrote Raymond Aron in 
1966, "was senseless, since on paper the Empire of the 
Rising Sun had no chance of winning and could avoid 
losing only if the Americans were too lazy or cowardly 
to conquer." 7 Gordon Prange, the great historian 
of Pearl Harbor, called the attack the beginning of 
"a reckless war it [Japan] could not possibly win." 8 
Edward N. Luttwak, in his Strategy: The Logic of War 
and Peace, contended that the Japanese had no victory 
options after Pearl Harbor other than "an invasion of 
California, followed by the conquest of the major centers 
of American life and culminating with an imposed 
peace dictated to some collaborating government in 
Washington." Luttwak conceded that such a strategy 
lay fantastically beyond Japan's power, and, in fact, 
no Japanese leader ever proposed an invasion of the 
United States. "So the best Japanese option after Pearl 
Harbor was to sue immediately for peace, bargaining 
away Japan's ability to resist eventual defeat for some 
years in exchange for whatever the United States would 
concede to avoid having to fight for its victory." 9 For 
strategist Colin Gray, the "Asia-Pacific War of 1941-45 
was a conflict that Imperial Japan was always going to 
lose. It remains a cultural and strategic puzzle why so 
many Japanese military and political leaders endorsed 
the decision to go to war in 1941 while knowing that 
fact." 10 Roberta Wohlstetter, in her path-breaking Pearl 
Harbor: Warning and Decision, denounced the fanciful 
Japanese thinking behind the decision for war: "Most 
unreal was their assumption that the United States, 
with 10 times the military potential and a reputation 



for waging war until unconditional surrender, would 
after a short struggle accept the annihilation of a 
considerable part of its naval and air forces and the 
whole of its power in the Far East." 11 Perhaps the most 
savage indictment is that of Haruo Tohmatsu and H. P. 
Willmott: 

[N]o state or nation has ever been granted immunity from 
its own stupidity. But Japan's defeat in World War II was 
awesome. The coalition of powers that it raised against 
itself, the nature of its defeat across an entire ocean, 
and the manner in which the war ended represented an 
astonishing and remarkable, if unintended, achievement 
on the part of Japan. 12 

Was the Japanese decision for war in 1941 just a matter 
of stupidity? Can it be dismissed as simply a cultural 
puzzle? Is it beyond comprehension? 

Thucydides famously explained the desire of 
ancient Athens to retain its empire by declaring that 
"fear, honor, and interest" were among "three of the 
strongest motives." 13 Realist theories in international 
politics focus on calculations of power and interest 
as the primary drivers of state behavior, and in so 
doing tend to discount factors, such as ideology and 
pride, that distort "rational" analysis of risks and 
rewards. Ideology and pride, however, are central to 
understanding the international behavior of many 
states, including Japan from 1931 to 1945. For some 
states, including Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, 
ideology and national interest were inseparable. 
Indeed, the influence of ideology on the foreign 
policy decisionmaking of the great powers of the 20th 
century, especially Imperial Germany, Soviet Russia, 
Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Communist China, 
and— yes — the United States, deserves more academic 
scrutiny than it has received. 



It is the central conclusion of this monograph 
that the Japanese decision for war against the United 
States in 1941 was dictated by Japanese pride and the 
threatened economic destruction of Japan by the United 
States. The United States sought to deter Japanese 
imperial expansion into Southeast Asia by employing 
its enormous leverage over the Japanese economy; it 
demanded that Japan withdraw its forces from both 
Indochina and China — in effect that Japan renounce its 
empire in exchange for a restoration of trade with the 
United States and acceptance of American principles 
of international behavior. Observed Sir Basil Henry 
Liddell Hart in retrospect: "No Government, least of 
all the Japanese, could be expected to swallow such 
humiliating conditions, and utter loss of face." 14 

This conclusion excuses neither the attack on 
Pearl Harbor nor the stupidity of Tokyo's statecraft in 
the 1930s in placing Japan in a situation where war, 
surrender, and impoverishment were the only policy 
choices available. Like Nazi Germany, Japan was, in 
the decade of the 1930s, a serial aggressor state that 
eventually brought about its own downfall by picking 
too many powerful enemies. Japan's attempt to conquer 
China and to displace Western power in Southeast 
Asia inevitably provoked armed resistance. Stumbling 
into a war that Japan was "always going to lose" owed 
much to Japanese racism, fatalism, imperial arrogance, 
and cultural ignorance. The Japanese confused honor 
with interest by permitting their imperial ambitions 
to run far ahead of their military capacity to achieve 
them. Indeed, the Japanese, like the Germans (and 
later, the Israelis), displayed a remarkable incapacity 
for sound strategic thinking; they were simultaneously 
mesmerized by short-term operational opportunities 
and blind to their likely disastrous long-term strategic 



consequences. How else could Tokyo consider war 
with the United States and the Soviet Union in addition 
to a debilitating 4-year war it did not know how to win 
in China? 

Nor does this monograph's thesis excuse the 
savagery of Japanese behavior in East Asia during 
the 1930s and 1940s or the unwillingness of postwar 
Japanese governments to acknowledge and atone 
for that behavior. The Japanese, unlike the Germans, 
have refused to come to terms with their past wars of 
conquest and their atrocious treatment of conquered 
populations, and the argument that the American 
atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki absolves 
the Japanese of any moral responsibility for their own 
prior transgressions in East Asia is patently absurd. (In 
October 2008, the chief of staff of the Japanese air force 
was relieved of command for writing an essay in which 
he justified Japanese colonialism, denied that Japan 
had waged wars of aggression, and suggested that 
Roosevelt had lured the Japanese into attacking Pearl 
Harbor. 15 The incident was but the latest involving a 
misstatement of the history of Japan's behavior in East 
Asia in the 1930s and 1940s by a high-ranking Japanese 
official.) 

All that said, however, it is necessary to observe 
that the United States was also guilty of grievous 
miscalculation in the Pacific in 1941. It takes at least 
two parties to transform a political dispute into 
war. Racism was hardly unique to the Japanese, and 
Americans were, if anything, even more culturally 
ignorant of Japan than the Japanese were of the United 
States. The conviction, widespread within the Roosevelt 
administration until the last months of 1941, that no 
sensible Japanese leader could rationally contemplate 
war with the United States, blinded key policymakers 



to the likely consequences of such reckless decisions 
as the imposition of what amounted to a complete 
trade embargo of Japan in the summer of 1941. The 
embargo abruptly deprived Japan of 80 percent of its 
oil requirements, confronting Tokyo with the choice of 
either submitting to U.S. demands that it give up its 
empire in China and resume its economic dependency 
on the United States or, alternatively, advancing into 
resource-rich Southeast Asia and placing its expanded 
empire on an economically independent foundation. 
The embargo thus provoked rather than cowed Japan. 
David Kahn has observed that: 

American racism and rationalism kept the United States 
from thinking that Japan would attack it. . . . Japan was 
not only more distant [than Germany]; since she had no 
more than half America's population and only one-ninth 
of America's industrial output, rationality seemed to 
preclude her attacking the United States. And disbelief 
in a Japanese attack was reinforced by belief in the 
superiority of the white race. Americans looked upon 
Japanese as bucktoothed, bespectacled little yellow men, 
forever photographing things with their omnipresent 
cameras so they could copy them. Such opinions were 
held not only by common bigots but by opinion makers 
as well. 16 

Indeed, more than a few administration decision- 
makers, Stimson among them, suspected that Ger- 
many was behind the Pearl Harbor attack. Prange ob- 
served that "It was difficult for these men in Washing- 
ton to accept the fact that a military operation so swift, 
so ruthless, so painfully successful — in a word, so blitz- 
krieg—in nature did not originate with Hitler." 17 

It was easy to dismiss the Japanese as a serious 
military challenge. Today, "we can easily forget how 



little credibility Westerners assigned to the Japanese 
military in 1941," reminds Jean Edward Smith. 

The army had been bogged down in China for four 
years; Zhukov had made quick work of the garrison 
in Manchukuo; and the Japanese Navy had not been 
engaged in battle on the high seas since 1905. "The Japs," 
as FDR called them, might prevail in Southeast Asia, but 
they were scarcely seen as a threat to American forces in 
the Pacific, certainly not to Pearl Harbor, which both the 
Army and the Navy believed to be impregnable. 18 

Indeed, the crushing defeat of the Imperial Japanese 
Army (IJA) at Nomohan (Khalkin-Gol) by Soviet 
armor and artillery in August 1939 revealed the 
relative technological primitiveness and operational 
inflexibility of the IJA as well as the comparative 
weakness of Japan's industrial base. 19 In the years 
before the war, recounts Gordon Prange, "Americans 
assured one another that Japan was virtually bankrupt, 
short of raw materials, and hopelessly bogged down in 
China. It lagged 100 years behind the times, and in case 
of a major conflict, its wheel-barrow economy would 
shatter like a teacup hurled against a brick wall." 20 

The issue of "rationality" is a false one. Cultures as 
disparate as those of the United States and Japan in the 
1930s defy a common standard of rationality. Ration- 
ality lies in the eyes of the beholder, and "rational" lead- 
ers can make horribly mistaken decisions. American ex- 
amples include the Truman administration's decision 
to cross the 38th Parallel in Korea in 1950, which 
witlessly provoked an unnecessary war with China; 
the Johnson administration's decision to commit U.S. 
ground combat forces to South Vietnam's defense in 
1965; and the George W. Bush administration's decision 
to invade Iraq in 2003. 



Was Churchill's decision to fight on after Dunkirk 
rational? In May-June 1940 Britain had no means of 
effectively challenging Hitler's domination of Europe. 
London had no remaining continental allies (the Soviet 
Union was Hitler's ally from 1939 to 1941), and the 
isolationist United States might as well have been on 
another planet. Britain's only hope of survival, and 
it was just that — hope — lay in American and Soviet 
entry into the war, which in turn depended on the 
chance of profound strategic miscalculations by 
Germany and Japan. That such miscalculations were 
forthcoming in Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union 
in June 1941 and Japan's attack on the United States 
in December was, for Churchill, sheer luck. Absent 
those monumental blunders, Britain would have been 
finished as a European power and perhaps eventually 
destroyed by Germany. A "realist" prime minister in 
May-June 1940 might have explored the possibility 
of a negotiated departure of Britain from the war by 
formally accepting German hegemony on the continent 
(including British evacuation of Gibraltar) in exchange 
for Hitler's guarantee of the British empire's integrity. 
Indeed, some members of Churchill's cabinet — notably 
Lord Halifax — are known to have favored exploration 
of a possible settlement via an approach to Mussolini. 21 
Fighting on without allies would have been heroic but 
futile (one is reminded of Japan's doomed struggle from 
Okinawa to Nagasaki). Sooner or later, the weight of 
Germany's military might, reinforced by its conquests 
in Europe (and continued massive deliveries of grain 
and other strategically critical raw materials from the 
Soviet Union), would have proved decisive. 

Japan's decision for war was made after months of 
agonizing internal debate by leaders who recognized 
America's vast industrial superiority and who, in the 



10 



more sober moments, suffered few illusions about 
Japan's chances in a protracted war against America. 
Japan's leaders did not want war with the United 
States, but by the fall of 1941 few saw any acceptable 
alternative to war. They believed that Japan's invasion 
of British- and Dutch-controlled Southeast Asia would 
mean war with the United States, and they resigned 
themselves to it. Nor did the United States want 
war with Japan. The Roosevelt administration was 
committed to stopping Hitler in Europe; engaged in 
an undeclared shooting war with Nazi submarines in 
the North Atlantic; and wedded to a "Germany-first" 
strategy in the event of war with all the Axis powers. 
The last thing Roosevelt wanted was a war in the 
Pacific. The administration was unwilling to go to war 
over China and mistakenly believed that it could deter 
or retard a Japanese advance into Southeast Asia via 
the retention of powerful naval forces in Hawaii, the 
imposition economic sanctions, and the deployment 
of long-range bombers to the Philippines. It presumed 
realism and rationality on the part of the Japanese and 
failed to understand that sanctions it imposed upon 
Japan in the summer of 1941 were tantamount to an 
act of war. Jonathan Utley observes: 

No one during the fall of 1941 wanted war with Japan. 
[The] Navy preferred to concentrate on the Atlantic. [The] 
Army said it needed a few more months before it would 
be ready in the Philippines. [Secretary of State Cordell] 
Hull had made the search for peace his primary concern 
for months. Roosevelt could see nothing to be gained 
by a war with Japan. Hawks such as Acheson, [Interior 
Secretary Harold] Ickes, and [Treasury Secretary Henry] 
Morgenthau argued that their strong policies would 
avoid war, not provoke one. 22 



11 



Prange convincingly argued that "No one who has 
examined the great mass of historical evidence on 
Pearl Harbor can doubt that the United States wanted 
to maintain peace with Japan for as long as possible" 
because it "wished to remain free to assist Great Britain 
and defeat Hitler." 23 

Japanese Aggression and U.S. Policy Responses, 
1937-41. 

The Japanese decision for war against the United 
States was the product of Japanese fatalism, racial 
arrogance, cultural incomprehension, and strategic 
miscalculation. The decision followed (1) four years of 
stalemated Japanese aggression in China, (2) Tokyo's 
proclamation in August 1940 of a "Greater East Asian 
Co-Prosperity Sphere" that encompassed Southeast 
Asia as well as China, Manchuria, and Korea, and (3) 
Japan's entry into a military alliance — the Tripartite 
Pact of September 1940— with Nazi Germany and 
Fascist Italy. Having annexed Korea in 1910 and seized 
Manchuria in 1931, Japan invaded China in 1937. By the 
beginning of 1941, Japan had conquered much of north 
and central China, seized all of China's major ports as 
well as Hainan Island and the Spratly Islands in the 
South China Sea, and established a military presence 
in northern French Indochina. Japan was poised to 
invade resource-rich Southeast Asia, which Japanese 
propagandists had long and loudly proclaimed 
was rightfully within Japan's sphere of influence, 
notwithstanding the fact that almost all of Southeast 
Asia lay under British, Dutch, French, and American 
colonial rule. 

The United States had never recognized Japan's 
Manchurian puppet state of Manchukuo and opposed 



12 



Japan's war in China. The United States recognized 
Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang as the legitimate 
government of China and provided it financial and 
later military assistance. The Roosevelt administration 
also rightly regarded the Tripartite Pact as directed 
against the United States. Japan's alliance with Hitler, 
which was clearly intended to deter the United States 
from going to war with Germany or Japan by raising 
the specter of a two-ocean war, 24 transformed Japan 
from regional threat into a potential extension of 
Hitler's agenda of aggression, especially with respect 
to the Soviet Union after the Nazi invasion of June 22, 
1941. "No other action could so directly or effectively 
have seemed to bear out the contention of the hard- 
line faction in Washington that Japan's southward 
drive was part of a vast Axis plan for world conquest 
that would eventually reach America unless she acted 
immediately to stop it," observes Sachiko Murakami. 25 
Roosevelt viewed the Soviet Union as an indispensable 
belligerent against Hitler and took the threat of a 
Japanese invasion of Siberia from Manchuria quite 
seriously; there is even evidence that he deliberately 
stiffened U.S. policy toward Japan in the wake of 
Germany's invasion of Russia for the purpose of 
encouraging the Japanese to look south rather than 
north. 26 "The great question for world leaders in the 
first half of 1941 was whether Hitler would attack the 
Soviet Union, and the great question in the latter half 
was whether he would succeed," observes Waldo 
Heinrichs. "The German-Soviet conflict had a direct 
bearing on Japanese- American relations." 27 

But the Roosevelt administration also regarded 
a Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, especially the 
oil-rich Dutch East Indies and tin- and rubber-rich 
British Malaya, as strategically unacceptable. Control 



13 



of Southeast Asia would not only weaken the British 
Empire and threaten India, Australia, and New Zealand; 
it would also afford Japan access to oil and other 
critical raw materials that would reduce its economic 
dependence on the United States. The administration, 
contends Jonathan Marshall, was wedded to the 
"fundamental proposition that the United States and 
Britain could not afford to lose the raw material wealth 
and the sea lanes of Southeast Asia" even if it meant 
war. 28 Though the administration was never prepared 
to go to war over China, it regarded an extension of 
Japan's empire into Southeast Asia as unacceptable. 
Thus Japan provoked a strong American response when 
Japanese forces occupied southern French Indochina 
in July 1941 as an obvious preliminary to further 
southward military moves. (In 1940 the United States 
had cracked Japan's most secret diplomatic code — 
known as PURPLE — and was therefore privy to key 
foreign ministry traffic regarding Japan's intentions.) 

The United States was prepared to declare economic 
war on Japan as a means of deterring— or at least 
delaying— a Japanese advance into Southeast Asia, 
and that is exactly what the Roosevelt administration 
did in July 1941. Roosevelt did not envisage an abrupt 
shut down of all U.S. trade with Japan when he signed 
the order freezing Japanese assets in the United States 
on July 26. As Roosevelt told Secretary of the Interior 
Harold Ickes, he intended to use the order's requirement 
that the Japanese obtain export licenses to release frozen 
dollars for purchase of any further U.S. products as a 
"noose around Japan's neck" which he would "give 
it a jerk now and then." 29 The aim of the asset freeze, 
at least in Roosevelt's mind, "was to avoid provoking 
Japan while bringing more and more pressure to 



14 



bear, not only to impede Japan's war production, but 
also to haunt it with the constant threat that more 
severe measures might be applied." 30 Thus Roosevelt 
intended that oil shipments to Japan continue, albeit in 
reduced quantities, because he believed that a complete 
embargo could provoke a Japanese attack on the Dutch 
East Indies. 31 The Roosevelt administration was well 
aware that Japan imported 90 percent of its oil, of 
which 75-80 percent was from the United States (which 
in 1940 accounted for an astounding 63 percent of the 
world's output of petroleum). Roosevelt also knew 
that the Dutch East Indies, which produced 3 percent 
of the world's output, was the only other convenient 
oil producer that could meet Japan's import needs. 32 

The freeze order was the culmination of a program of 
sanctioning Japan for its aggression in China that began 
in January 1940 with the U.S. withdrawal from its 1911 
commercial treaty with Japan (notice of abrogation was 
given in July 1939). Sanctioning escalated in July 1940 
with the passage of the National Defense Act, which 
granted the administration authority to ban or restrict 
the export of items declared vital to national defense. 
On July 25 Roosevelt announced a ban on Japanese 
acquisition of U.S. high-octane aviation gasoline, 
certain grades of steel and scrap iron, and some 
lubricants. In September the White House imposed 
a ban on all scrap iron exports to Japan. Because the 
Japanese steel industry was highly dependent on 
imported scrap iron from the United States, the ban 
compelled Japan to draw down its stockpiles and 
operate its steel industry well below capacity; indeed, 
the ban blocked any significant expansion of Japanese 
steel production during the war. 33 In December the 
embargo was expanded to include iron ore, steel, and 



15 



steel products, and the following month expanded to 
include copper (of which the United States supplied 80 
percent of Japan's requirements), brass, bronze, zinc, 
nickel, and potash. "Almost every week thereafter other 
items were added to the list, each of which was much 
needed for Japanese industrial production." 34 Thus 
by July 1941, the United States was already severely 
punishing Japan for its continued aggression in China 
and adherence to the Tripartite Pact. 

By early 1941 the United States had in place an imposing 
number of embargoes on the shipment of materials to 
Japan, nearly all of them had been justified, and most of 
them correctly justified, as measures necessary for the 
American rearmament effort. But for this very reason they 
had a substantial impact on Japan's own war economy. 
Tokyo's only source of materials crucial for war — scrap 
iron, steel, machine tools, ferroalloys, aluminum — was, 
excepting a trickle of supplies from Germany that came 
over the transSiberian railroad, the United States. 35 

But, as Roosevelt understood, it was Japan's oil 
dependency on the United States, a dependency, 
ironically, that had deepened with Japan's expanding 
military operations in China, that constituted the real 
hangman's noose around Japan's neck. Moreover, by 
the summer of 1941 it had become politically difficult 
for the Roosevelt administration to justify the continued 
shipment of a commodity on which the Japanese war 
machine was so dependent. American public opinion 
was increasingly outraged, as were key members of 
Roosevelt's cabinet, including Secretary of the Interior 
Ickes, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau, Secretary 
of the Navy Frank Knox, and Secretary of War Henry 
Stimson, who believed that the continued shipment of 
oil to Japan was a national disgrace. 36 (Ickes favored 
a preventive war against Japan. 37 ) Thus for State and 



16 



Treasury department hardliners "who saw Japan as 
the enemy and economic sanctions as the effective 
weapon at hand," a limited oil embargo was a half- 
measure inviting bureaucratic sabotage. 38 Led by State 
Department hawks Acheson and Stanley Hornbeck, 
head of State's Far Eastern Division, they believed that 
Japan was a paper tiger that would collapse in response 
to strong U.S. pressure, and they sought to threaten 
Japan's economic ruin by converting the freeze order 
into a complete suspension of trade (including oil) 
through their control of the complicated procedures 
that compelled Japanese importers to obtain export 
licenses from the State Department as well as exchange 
permits (to release frozen funds) from the Treasury 
Department. 39 Both Acheson and Morgenthau had 
favored punitive sanctions for years and took advantage 
of the freeze order to deny all Japanese requests for 
licenses and exchange permits. 40 

The result, in conjunction with the seizure of Japan- 
ese assets by Great Britain and the Netherlands, was a 
complete suspension of Japanese economic access to the 
United States and the destruction of between 50 and 75 
percent of Japan's foreign trade. 41 In early November 
1941, Joseph Grew, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, 
cabled Secretary of State Hull that "the greater part of 
Japanese commerce has been lost, Japanese industrial 
production has been drastically curtailed, and Japan's 
national resources have been depleted." Grew went 
on to warn of "an all-out, do-or-die attempt, actually 
risking national hara kiri, to make Japan impervious 
to economic embargoes abroad rather than to yield to 
foreign pressure." 42 Even in retrospect, Acheson, for 
his part, claimed that the embargo's aim was "to limit 
Japanese military action in East and Southeast Asia," 
and that though the "danger of provoking Japan to 
seize . . . the Dutch East Indies ... or move against 



17 



us" was recognized, the feeling was that "no rational 
Japanese could believe that an attack on us could result 
in anything but disaster for his country. Of course, 
no one even dimly foresaw the initial success of [the 
Japanese] attack [on Pearl Harbor]." 43 

Roosevelt was much less confident. Neither he 
nor U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall nor 
U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Harold "Betty" Stark 
wanted to force a showdown with Japan. All three 
men were preoccupied with the war in Europe and 
regarded Nazi Germany as a far greater threat to U.S. 
security than Imperial Japan. Marshall, Stark, and 
other senior U.S. military leaders favored restraint in 
the Pacific, 44 whereas Roosevelt wanted the bargaining 
leverage of a limited embargo because he believed that 
an abrupt shut down of U.S. trade with Japan would 
likely provoke a Japanese advance into Southeast Asia, 
which would probably mean war. As early as October 
1940 Roosevelt told Hull and Under-Secretary of State 
Sumner Welles that an oil shut-off would force Japan 
to attack the Dutch East Indies, a judgment he repeated 
to a White House audience just 2 days after ordering 
the freeze of Japanese assets. 45 Yet upon discovering, 
after his return from the Placentia Bay conference with 
Winston Churchill in August, that all oil exports to 
Japan had, in fact, been suspended, Roosevelt declined 
to reverse the decision. The reasons remain unclear. 
Perhaps he believed that a reversal would look like a 
retreat, or perhaps he had come to regard a Japanese 
advance into Southeast Asia as inevitable. If war was 
now a certainty, then a complete embargo would 
weaken Japan's capacity to wage war. 46 Roosevelt 
was also pursuing a highly-interventionist policy in 
Europe for which he needed the support of Stimson, 
Morgenthau, Ickes, and other anti-Japanese hardliners; 



18 



he may have felt that he risked alienating the hardliners 
by continued lack of decisive intervention against 
Japan. 47 

The culmination of U.S. economic warfare against 
Japan by late summer of 1941 confronted Tokyo with 
essentially two choices: seizure of Southeast Asia, or 
submission to the United States. Economic destitution 
and attendant military paralysis would soon become 
a reality if Japan did nothing. The embargo was 
already beginning to strangle Japanese industry, and 
Japan's stockpiled oil amounted to no more than 18- 
24 months of normal consumption — and substantially 
less should Japan mount major military operations in 
Southeast Asia. 48 As National Planning Board Director 
Teiichi Suzuki declared before an Imperial audience 
on September 6, 1941: 

At this stage our national power with respect to 
physical resources has come to depend entirely upon 
the productive capacity of the Empire itself, upon that 
of Manchuria, China, Indochina . . . and upon vital 
materials stockpiled so far. Therefore, as a result of the 
present overall economic blockade imposed by Great 
Britain and the United States, our Empire's national 
power is declining day by day. Our liquid fuel stockpile, 
which is the most important, will reach bottom by June 
or July of next year, even if we impose strict wartime 
control on civilian demand. Accordingly, I believe it 
is vitally important for the survival of our Empire that 
we make up our minds to establish and stabilize a firm 
economic base. 49 

Two months later, at another conference of Japanese 
leaders, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo warned that "Two 
years from now we will have no petroleum for military 
use. Ships will stop moving .... We can talk about 
austerity and suffering, but can our people endure 



19 



such a life for a long time? ... I fear that we would 
become a third-class nation after 2 or 3 years if we just 
sat tight." 50 

Yet the price the Americans demanded for lifting 
the embargo and restoring U.S.-Japanese trade to 
some semblance of normality was no more acceptable: 
abandonment of empire. The Roosevelt administration 
demanded that Japan not only terminate its membership 
in the Tripartite Alliance, but also withdraw its 
military forces from both China and Indochina, and 
by extension, the Japanese feared, Manchuria (after all, 
the United States had refused to recognize the Japanese 
puppet state of Manchukuo). Abandonment of China 
and Indochina would have compelled Japan to write 
off its hard-won gains on the Asian mainland since 
1937 and drop any hope of becoming the dominant 
power in East Asia. For Japan, a major reason for 
establishing an empire in East Asia was to free itself of 
the very kind of humiliating economic dependency on 
the United States that the embargo represented. And 
what was to stop the Americans from coercing further 
territorial concessions from the Japanese, including 
withdrawal from Manchuria and even Korea and 
Formosa? Japan "could not accept any interim solution 
that left it dependent on American largesse" or any 
deal that left it in a position of "continued reliance 
on the whims of Washington. The possibility that 
the Americans might supply Japan with just enough 
oil, steel, and other materials to maintain a starveling 
existence was intolerable to any Japanese statesman." 51 
Consider the assessment of Yoshimichi Hara, President 
of the Imperial Privy Council (composed of Japan's ex- 
premiers), on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack: 

If we were to give in, we would give up in one stroke not 
only our gains in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese 



20 



wars, but also the benefits of the Manchurian Incident. 
This we cannot do. We are loathe to compel our people to 
suffer even greater hardships, on top of what they have 
endured during the four years since the China Incident. 
But it is clear that the existence of our country is being 
threatened, that the great achievements of the Emperor 
Meiji would all come to naught, and that there is nothing 
else we can do. 52 

The United States was, in effect, demanding that 
Japan renounce its status as an aspiring great power 
and consign itself to permanent strategic dependency 
on a hostile Washington. Such a choice would have 
been unacceptable to any great power. Japan's survival 
as a major industrial and military power was a stake — 
far more compelling reasons for war than the United 
States later advanced for its disastrous wars of choice 
in Vietnam and Iraq. Would the United States ever 
have permitted a hostile power to wreck its foreign 
commerce and strangle its domestic economy without 
a resort to war? 

If the United States had been faced with a similar boycott 
which equally endangered its future, few Americans 
would have questioned the propriety of waging a major 
war to restore the prerequisites of American survival. . . . 
A body blow of this caliber could have driven multitudes 
beyond even caring about "winability." National self- 
respect and even the quest for naked vengeance . . . 
would have reinforced necessity and swept aside any 
objections. If the United States would have launched a 
preemptive war under such circumstances, why is it so 
surprising that the Japanese did so? 53 

The American campaign of economic warfare 
culminating in the total embargo of U.S. trade with 
Japan in the late summer of 1941 made sense only as a 
defense measure — i.e., as a means of weakening Japan 
in anticipation of inevitable war. It could never have 



21 



succeeded as a deterrent to war because the Japanese, 
with considerable reason, regarded the embargo as an 
act of war mandating a response in kind. 

Roberta Wohlstetter contended that, for Japan, "war 
with the United States was not chosen. The decision for 
war was rather forced by the desire to avoid the terrible 
alternative of losing status or abandoning [its] national 
objectives." 54 The historian Akira Iriye has written of 
the oil embargo that it: 

had a tremendous psychological impact upon the 
Japanese. The ambivalence and ambiguities in their 
perception of world events disappeared, replaced by 
a sense of clear-cut alternatives. Hitherto they had not 
confronted the stark choice between war and peace as 
an immediate prospect and had lived in a climate of 
uncertainty from day to day. Now, with the United 
States resorting to decisive measures, that phase passed. 
Any wishful thinking that America would tolerate the 
invasion of southern Indochina was dissipated; either 
Japan would stay in Southeast Asia at the risk of war 
with the Anglo-American countries or it would retreat 
to conciliate them. The military judged that it was too 
late for conciliation; Japan would now have to consider 
the likelihood of war, with the United States as its major 
adversary. 55 

Ian Kershaw contends that "For no faction of the 
Japanese elites could there be a retreat from the goals 
of a victorious settlement in China and successful 
expansion to establish . . . Japanese domination of 
the Far East." These objectives "had not just become 
an economic imperative. They reflected honour and 
national pride, the prestige and standing of a great 
power. The alternatives were seen as not just poverty, 
but defeat, humiliation, ignominy, and an end to 
great power status in permanent subordination to the 
United States." 56 Indeed, better to die fighting than 



22 



to capitulate. "[S]ince Japan is unavoidably facing 
national ruin whether it decides to fight the United 
States or submit to its demands, it must by all means 
choose to fight," declared Admiral Osami Nagano, 
the Chief of Staff of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), 
at an Imperial Conference in September 1941. "Japan 
would rather go down fighting than ignobly surrender 
without a struggle, because surrender would spell 
spiritual as well as physical ruin for the nation and its 
destiny." 57 

War— even a lost war— was clearly preferable 
to humiliation and starvation. Seizure of the Dutch 
East Indies and British possessions in Southeast Asia 
(Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei, and British 
North Borneo) offered Japan the only alternative to oil 
and other resource dependence on the United States. 
It also meant certain war with Great Britain and the 
Netherlands, and probably war with the United States. 
Neither the British nor the Dutch were in a position 
to defend their Southeast Asian possessions, however, 
and the United States was preoccupied with events 
in Europe. Could the Japanese move into Southeast 
Asia without provoking war with the United States? 
Japanese leaders were initially divided on this question, 
but finally concluded that even a southward military 
advance that avoided attacks on the Philippines 
and other American targets almost certainly would 
provoke an armed U.S. response and therefore that 
it was imperative to strike the first blow. Even if 
Japan's advance did not provoke war, an untouched 
Philippines (and U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor) 
would constitute an unacceptable potential military 
threat along the eastern flank of Japan's southward 
advance. IJN leaders were particularly insistent that 
the United States and Great Britain were strategically 
inseparable, and that Washington would go to war 



23 



with Japan if Japan went to war with Great Britain. 58 
Additionally, by this time many Japanese leaders had 
come to believe that war with the United States was 
inevitable, and there seemed to be no appreciation of 
the difficulties Roosevelt would have confronted in 
securing a congressional declaration of war in response 
to a Japanese attack only on British and Dutch colonial 
possessions in Southeast Asia. 

By the end of the 1930s [Japan's] international 
intransigence and naked military aggression had 
created a situation in which the survival of Japan as a 
great power, and of her conception of an Asian empire, 
did indeed hang in the balance. By the fall of 1941 the 
question had come to be not whether there was to be 
a war with the Western powers, including the latently 
powerful United States, but, given the regional and 
world situation, whether there would ever come a more 
favorable time to solve Japan's resource problems by 
military action. 59 

Japanese Assumptions. 

The Japanese brought several beliefs, or assump- 
tions, to their consideration of war with the United 
States. Some were realistic, others not, and the line be- 
tween reasonable expectation and wishful thinking was 
often blurred. The first assumption was that time was 
working against Japan— i.e., the longer Japan waited 
to initiate war against the United States, the dimmer 
its prospects for success. This assumption was grimly 
realistic. As the embargo took hold and the United 
States accelerated its rearmament, Japan's economic 
and military power vis-a-vis that of the United States 
began to rapidly decline. In the critical category of naval 
tonnage, Japan in late 1941 possessed a competitive 70 
percent of total U.S. naval tonnage (including tonnage 



24 



deployed in the Atlantic), but the Japanese correctly 
projected, based on existing naval building programs 
(and excluding estimated losses), that the ratio would 
drop to 65 percent in 1942, 50 percent in 1943, and 30 
percent in 1944. 60 The Two-Ocean Navy Act passed by 
Congress in July 1940 called for a 70 percent increase in 
U.S. naval tonnage, including construction of 18 aircraft 
carriers, 6 battleships, 33 cruisers, 115 destroyers, and 
43 submarines. 61 H. P. Willmott has observed that 
the act "doomed the Imperial Navy to second-class 
status, since the activities of American shipyards 
would be as catastrophic for Japanese aspirations as 
a disastrous naval battle would be." 62 Yamamoto had 
warned Japanese leaders: "Anyone who has seen the 
auto factories in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas 
knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval 
race with America." 63 Japan's relative naval strength 
would never be better than in 1941. Indeed, during the 
war years the United States built 8,812 naval vessels 
to Japan's 589. 64 A month before Pearl Harbor, Army 
Chief of Staff Hajime Sugiyama warned that "the ratio 
of armament between Japan and the United States 
will become more unfavorable to us as time passes; 
and particularly, the gap in air armament will enlarge 
rapidly." 65 In 1941 the United States produced 1,400 
combat aircraft to Japan's 3,200; 3 years later, the 
United States built 37,500 to Japan's 8,300. 66 

Thus the oil embargo drove the Japanese into the 
logic of preventive war: given war's inevitability and 
our declining military power relative to the enemy's, 
Japanese leaders reasoned, better war now than later. 
However poor Japan's chances of defeating the United 
States, they were better in 1941 than in any coming 
year. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Pacific 
Ocean warship balance between Japan and the United 



25 



States was 10:8 in battleships, 10:3 in aircraft carriers, 
18:13 in heavy cruisers, 20:11 in light cruisers, 112:80 in 
destroyers, and 65:56 in submarines. 67 

A second and equally realistic assumption was that 
Japan had little chance of winning a protracted war with 
the United States. America's great material superiority 
would eventually bury Japan. If Japan had any chance 
of fighting a war with the United States to some kind of 
successful conclusion, it had to bring military operations 
to a head as soon as possible. As Yamamoto had warned 
Prime Minister Konoe in the fall of 1940, "if I am told 
to 'go at it/ you will see me run wild for half a year, 
maybe a year. But I have no confidence whatsoever 
when it comes to 2 years, 3 years." 68 Admiral Osami 
Nagano, the IJN's chief of staff, clearly understood that 
a protracted war benefited the United States. Indeed, 
he believed that "the probability is very high that 
they [the United States] will from the outset plan on a 
prolonged war. Therefore it will be necessary for us to 
be reconciled to this and to be prepared militarily for 
a long war." He hoped that the United States would 
"aim for a quick war leading to an early decision, 
sendfing] their principal naval units [into the Western 
Pacific], and challenging] us to an immediate war," 
but he feared that "America will attempt to prolong 
the war, using her impregnable position, her superior 
industrial power, and her abundant resources." 69 
Neither Nagano nor any other Japanese leader offered 
a practical alternative to fighting a war on American 
terms. Short-war Japan was going to pick a fight with a 
long- war enemy. 

Given the expectation of a long war with the United 
States, how did Japan expect to survive? Did Japanese 
leaders have a theory of victory, or at least of defeat- 
avoidance? Japan was not strong enough to threaten 



26 



the American homeland, but was not the war going to 
be fought in East Asia and the Western Pacific, which 
the Japanese controlled or would soon control (after 
Tokyo's conquest of Southeast Asia)? Might Tokyo be 
able to fight the United States to a bloody stalemate 
on the Japanese side of the Pacific and extract from 
that stalemate some kind of political settlement with 
Washington that would preserve Japan's core imperial 
interests on the Asian mainland? 

These questions point to a third Japanese 
assumption, or at least hope: namely, that by swiftly 
seizing and fortifying the Central and Southwestern 
Pacific, the Japanese could force the Americans 
into a murderous, island-by-island slog that would 
eventually exhaust their political will to fight on to 
total victory. Japan would raise the blood and treasure 
costs of the war beyond Washington's willingness to 
pay. 70 "The Japanese theory of victory," contends Colin 
Gray, "amounted to the hope — one hesitates to say 
calculation — that the United States would judge the cost 
of defeating Japan to be too heavy, too disproportionate 
to the worth of the interests at stake." 71 

This "strategy" was expressed in a document 
prepared by the Japanese military leadership for 
the critical Imperial Conference of September 6. 
The document, "The Essentials for Carrying Out the 
Empire's Policies," presented a series of questions and 
answers, one of which was: What is the outlook in a war 
with Great Britain and the United States; particularly, how 
shall we end the war? The answer: 

A war with the United States and Great Britain will be long, 
and will become a war of endurance. It is very difficult 
to predict the termination of war, and it would be well- 
nigh impossible to expect the surrender of the United 
States. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that 



27 



the war may end because of a great change in American 
public opinion, which may result from such factors as 
the remarkable success of our military operations in the 
South [Southeast Asia] or the surrender of Great Britain. 
At any rate, we should be able to establish an invincible 
position: by building up a strategically advantageous 
position through the occupation of important areas 
in the South; by creating an economy that will be self- 
sufficient in the long run through the development 
of rich resources in the Southern regions, as well as 
through the use of the economic power of the East Asian 
continent; and by linking Asia and Europe in destroying 
the Anglo-American coalition through our cooperation 
with Germany and Italy. Meanwhile, we may hope that 
we will be able to influence the trend of affairs and bring 
the war to an end. 72 

Nagano believed that, 

If we take the South, we will be able to strike a strong 
blow against American resources of national defense. 
That is, we will build an iron wall, and within it we will 
destroy, one by one, the enemy states in Asia; and in 
addition, we will defeat America and Britain. If Britain 
is defeated, Americans will have to do some thinking. 
When we are asked what will happen in five years from 
now, it is natural that we should not know, whether it is 
in military operations, politics, or diplomacy. 73 

Nagano believed Japan could convert the Southwestern 
Pacific into an "impregnable" bastion, "laying the 
basis for protracted operations" that would exhaust 
U.S. will. 74 Adrian Lewis believes this best explains the 
Japanese determination to wage a "hopeless" resistance 
in the Central Pacific from 1943 to 1945: 

While the Marines fought some very difficult and bloody 
battles in places such as Tarawa and Iwo Jima, there was, 
in fact, no way for them to lose. The Japanese had no way 
to reinforce, no way to resupply, no way to evacuate, 
no way to equal the firepower of the U.S. Navy, and 



28 



frequently no air power. The Japanese literally had no 
way to win or survive . . . .The Japanese recognized their 
fate. They well understood the futility of their situation. 
However, their objective was not to achieve victory in the 
traditional sense. Their objective was to inflict as many 
casualties as possible on American forces, to hold out as 
long as possible, and to prolong the war. The Japanese 
believed they could destroy the will of the American 
people. 75 

Underlying the Japanese belief that they could bleed 
the Americans into a political settlement short of total 
victory — a belief that persisted among the Japanese 
military leadership well into 1945, was a fourth 
assumption: Japanese racial and spiritual superiority 
could neutralize America's material superiority. Japan 
was neither the first nor the last of America's enemies to 
stress the superiority of the human element of war and 
to underestimate the resolve of Americans at war. The 
Japanese were fully aware of their industrial weakness 
vis-a-vis the United States; they had long believed, 
however, that the unique qualities of their race, includ- 
ing a superior national will, discipline, and warfight- 
ing prowess, could defeat the strong but soft Ameri- 
cans. "The Japanese regarded us as a decadent na- 
tion in which pacifism and isolationism practically 
ruled the policy of our government," testified Ambassa- 
dor Grew after the war. 76 In December 1939 Grew had 
warned that attempts to defeat Japan via economic 
sanctions ignored Japanese psychology. "Japan is 
a nation of hardy warriors, still inculcated with the 
samurai do-or-die spirit which has by tradition and 
inheritance become ingrained in the race." Grew went 
on to note that the "Japanese throughout their history 
have faced periodic cataclysms brought about by nature 
and by man: earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, epidemics, 



29 



the blighting of crops, and almost constant wars within 
and without the country. By long experience they are 
inured to hardship . . . and to regimentation." 77 

H. P. Willmott points out that modern Japan was, in 
1941, "a nation with no experience of defeat and, more 
importantly, a nation [that believed itself] created by 
gods, and ruled by a god. . . . This religious dimension 
provided the basis for the belief in the superiority of 
the Japanese martial commitment . . . that was the 
guarantee against national defeat." 78 As for America, 
many Japanese shared the view of Rear Admiral Tasuku 
Nakazawa, chief of the IJA's operations section: "a 
composite nation of immigrants [which] lacked unity, 
could not withstand adversity and privations, and 
regarded war as a form of sport, so that if we deal a 
severe blow at the outset of hostilities they would lose 
the will to fight." 79 Indeed, as John Dower observes, in 
Japanese eyes, 

all Westerners were assumed to be selfish and egoistic, 
and incapable of mobilizing for a long fight in a 
distant place. All the "Western" values which Japanese 
ideologues and militarists had been condemning since 
the 1930s, after all, were attacked because they were said 
to sap the nation's strength and collective will. More 
concretely, it was assumed that Great Britain would fall 
to the Germans, and the United States war effort would be 
undercut by any number of debilitating forces endemic 
to contemporary America's isolationist sentiment, labor 
agitation, racial strife, political factionalism, capitalistic 
or "plutocratic" profiteering, and so on. 80 

As a creature-comforted capitalist society, America 
was simply too soft to sustain the blood and treasure 
burdens of a long, harsh war, and at some point the 
capitalists who controlled the United States would turn 
against a war whose balance sheet was registering far 
more costs than benefits. 



30 



Japan's industrial poverty relative to that of the 
Soviet Union and the United States encouraged an 
embrace of spiritual power over material strength. Even 
after its punishing defeat at Nomohan, which should 
have alerted the IJA to the perils of warring with an 
industrial giant like the United States, the IJA's: 

operational thinking remained essentially primitive, 
unscientific, complacent, narrow, and simplistic. 
Reaffirmation of faith in moral attributes and 
psychological factors amounted to callous evasion of 
the realities of modern firepower, mechanization, and 
aviation. The rationale was that the quantity and quality 
of the material possessed by Japan's enemies — and 
their sheer numbers — could only be offset by intangible 
factors such as high morale, spirit, and fearlessness in 
close fighting against men and armor. At Nomohan 
and throughout the Pacific War, the price was paid in 
lives squandered in desperate banzai charges with the 
bayonet, though it was well known that frontal assaults 
had rarely succeeded since the days of the Russo- 
Japanese War. 81 

Japanese illusions about "American decadence and 
effeteness and their failure to appreciate [America's] 
self-confidence and absolutist view of war rooted in the 
liberal tradition," observes Richard Betts, "facilitated 
the miscalculation that Washington would make the 
cost-benefit calculations Tokyo hoped: accept limited 
war and sue for peace after severe initial setbacks and 
the establishment of a Japanese perimeter in the Pacific 
that would be costly to crack." 82 

Japanese Decisionmaking. 

Scott Sagan, in his assessment of the Japanese 
decision for war against the United States, believes 



31 



that the "persistent theme of Japanese irrationality is 
highly misleading, for, using the common standard 
in the literature (a conscious calculation to maximize 
utility based on a consistent value system), the 
Japanese decision for war appears to have been 
rational." Sagan goes on to point out that upon close 
examination of the decisions made in Tokyo in 1941, 
"one finds not a thoughtless rush to national suicide, 
but rather a prolonged, agonizing debate between 
two repugnant alternatives." 83 The decisions were 
made by a small group of senior civilian officials and 
IJA and IJN officers, all of whom were committed to 
Japan's continued imperial expansion, regarded the 
United States as the main obstacle to that expansion, 
and opposed making any significant concessions to the 
United States. The main decisionmaking venue was the 
Liaison Conference, of which 56 meetings pertaining to 
the decision for war were held from April 18 through 
December 4, 1941. 84 The conferences brought together 
representatives of the Cabinet — the prime minister, 
the foreign minister, the war minister (a serving IJA 
officer), the navy minister (a serving IJN officer), and 
sometimes other ministers of state — and the army 
and navy chiefs of staff and vice chiefs of staff. Major 
policy decisions reached at Liaison Conferences were 
forwarded to Imperial Conferences for pro forma 
approval by the Emperor. Attendees at an Imperial 
Conference, which met in the presence of the Emperor, 
who almost always remained silent, included members 
of the Liaison Conference along with the President 
of the Privy Council, who served as the Emperor's 
spokesman. 85 It is testimony to the Emperor's limited 
influence that while he was personally against war with 
the United States and managed to delay the decision 



32 



for war for 6 weeks, he "eventually succumbed to the 
persistent pressure of the military bureaucracy and 
accepted its argument that war with the United States 
was inevitable and possibly winnable." 86 

Military opinion necessarily dominated Liaison 
Conference discussions and decisions, given that 
six of the eight principals were serving officers; war 
minister Hideki Tojo made it seven when he became 
prime minister in October 1941, a position he held 
until 1944. The Liaison Conferences also reveal a 
refusal to confront openly the possibility of defeat and 
its probable consequences, and a pervasive fatalistic 
belief that Japan's destiny was in the hands of forces 
beyond the control of Japanese decisionmakers. 87 
There were also sharp divisions between IJA and IJN 
representatives over timing and methods, but they 
all shared the same basic values, including a belief in 
death before dishonor. The IJN leadership had a much 
greater knowledge of the United States and respect 
for its power than did the IJA leadership. Nagano, 
Yamamoto, and other senior naval officers had spent 
considerable time in the United States; in fact, half of 
all IJN officers with the rank of captain or above had 
served abroad, most of them in Britain or the United 
States. 88 In contrast, Tojo and other senior IJA officers 
were fixated upon the war in China and had long 
regarded Russia as Japan's principal enemy. The IJA 
had no plans or strategy for a war against the United 
States and never made any real attempt to evaluate the 
United States as an enemy. 89 Indeed, the IJA leadership 
believed that war with the United States was the navy's 
responsibility. "So long as the navy failed to declare 
unequivocally that there was no chance of victory 
[against the United States], the army saw no reason to 
concern itself with the problem." 90 This extraordinarily 



33 



casual attitude toward the United States, an enemy for 
which the IJA had performed no military assessment 
or drafted a war plan, was the product in part of the 
army's utter preoccupation with its responsibilities on 
the Asian mainland. At the time of the Pearl Harbor 
attack, the army had 700,000 troops in Manchuria (for a 
possible invasion of Siberia) and had already sustained 
180,000 dead and 425,000 wounded in the China war; 
only 11 of its 51 divisions were available for operations 
in Southeast Asia. 91 

Perhaps the most important conference of the year 
was the Imperial Conference of July 2, 1941. At this 
conference the Emperor sanctioned army and navy 
plans to acquire bases in southern French Indochina, a 
move which explicitly postponed consideration of war 
with the Soviet Union and greatly increased the risk 
of war with the United States. 92 The German invasion 
of Russia on June 22 had persuaded Foreign Minister 
Yosuke Matsuoka and Privy Council President 
Yoshimichi Hara, among others, that Japan should 
strike northward, into the Soviet Far East, before moving 
southward into Southeast Asia. The "war between 
Germany and the Soviet Union represents the chance 
of a lifetime for Japan," argued Hara. "Since the Soviet 
Union is promoting Communism around the world, we 
will have to attack her sooner or later. . . . Our Empire 
wants to avoid going to war with Great Britain and the 
United States while we are engaged in a war with the 
Soviet Union. . . . [so] I want to see the Soviet Union 
attacked on this occasion." 93 Proponents of a southward 
advance first prevailed, however, leaving an attack on 
Russia for later consideration. U.S. economic sanctions 
were beginning to bite hard, and there was nothing to 
stop the Americans from imposing additional sanctions, 
including an oil embargo. Moreover, Japanese military 



34 



intelligence was not persuaded that Germany would 
swiftly defeat the Soviet Union. The conquest of 
Southeast Asia would afford Japan control over the oil 
of the Dutch East Indies as well as the tin and rubber of 
Malaya and southern Indochina; it would also isolate 
the Nationalist Government in China from any further 
Western assistance. The Siberian option could wait. 

The policy document approved at the Imperial 
Conference of July 2, "Outline of National Policies in 
View of the Changing Situation," was quite clear on 
the implications for Japanese-American relations: "In 
order to achieve the objectives [of defeating China and 
securing control of Southeast Asia], preparations for 
war with Great Britain and the United States will be 
made. . . . our Empire will not be deterred by the possibility 
of being involved in a war with Great Britain and the United 
States." 91 Thus the momentous decision to go south— 
to occupy southern Indochina as a preparatory step 
to a military advance into Southeast Asia— was taken 
before the Roosevelt administration's imposition of an 
oil embargo. Indeed, as we have seen, the embargo was 
a response to that decision. The Japanese decision to go 
south was made against the backdrop of escalating U.S. 
economic warfare against Tokyo and the legitimate 
Japanese fear that harsher sanctions were in the offing, 
though the abruptness and scope of the asset freeze still 
came as a shock. For Japanese leaders, many of them 
now persuaded that war with the United States was 
inevitable, the decision was an economic insurance 
policy against a complete shut-down of Western trade 
triggered by the July 26 freeze of Japanese assets in the 
United States. 

At the Imperial Conference on September 6, both IJN 
Chief of Staff Nagano and IJA Chief of Staff Sugiyama 
conceded that a war with the United States would 



35 



likely be prolonged, but they also contended that the 
U.S. embargo had made war necessary, and the sooner, 
the better, because Japan's national defense capability 
was declining vis-a-vis that of the United States. 95 In 
a series of questions and answers prepared for the 
Emperor by the War and Navy ministries entitled "The 
Essentials for Carrying Out the Empire's Policies," the 
proponents of war declared that "the policies of Japan 
and the United States are mutually incompatible; it 
is historically inevitable that the conflict between the 
two countries . . . will ultimately lead to war." The 
document went on the assert that "Even if we should 
make concessions to the United States by giving up part 
of our national policy for the sake of temporary peace, 
the United States, its military position strengthened, is 
sure to demand more and more concessions on our part; 
and ultimately our empire will have to lie prostrate at 
the feet of the United States." 96 The objective of war 
was clear: 

to expel the influence of [the United States, Great Britain, 
and the Netherlands] from East Asia, to establish a sphere 
for the self-defense and self-preservation of our Empire, 
and to build a New Order in Greater East Asia. In other 
words, we aim to establish a close and inseparable 
relationship in military, political, and economic affairs 
between our Empire and the countries of the Southern 
Region, to achieve our Empire's self-defense and self- 
preservation. 97 

The final decisions for war were made at the 
Liaison Conference of November 1 and the Imperial 
Conference of November 5. At the Liaison Conference 
a deadline for military action was set at the beginning 
of December absent a diplomatic breakthrough by 
November 30. 98 This deadline was reaffirmed at the 



36 



Imperial Conference, which also established a set of 
Japanese negotiating demands which the Roosevelt 
administration could not possibly accept, thus 
making war truly inevitable in early December 1941. 
The demands included noninterference in Japan's 
war against China; restoration of pre-embargo trade 
relations; a promise to supply Japan's petroleum needs; 
and cooperation in obtaining assured Japanese access 
to the resources of the Dutch East Indies. In exchange, 
Japan was prepared to foreswear an armed advance 
into Southeast Asia, except French Indochina." 

Planning and training for the attack on Pearl 
Harbor began in early 1941, when Admiral Yamamoto 
became commander-in-chief of Japan's Combined 
Fleet. The final operational plan itself was approved 
at the September 6 Imperial Conference, and elements 
of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's Pearl Harbor strike 
force began departing Kure Naval Base on November 
10. Ironically, given the strategic consequences of the 
decision for war with the United States, the attack on 
Pearl Harbor was much less militarily effective than 
it could — and should — have been. None of the U.S. 
Pacific Fleet's three aircraft carriers was present at 
Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and of the eight 
mostly over-aged battleships at Pearl, only two (the 
Arizona and Oklahoma) were destroyed beyond repair; 
the rest were refloated, repaired, and returned to 
wartime service. The same was true of the three light 
cruisers and four destroyers damaged in the attack. 
All U.S. heavy cruisers and submarines, and most U.S. 
destroyers, escaped any damage. Moreover, most of 
the 155 U.S. combat aircraft destroyed in Hawaii were 
replaced from the United States mainland within a 
matter of weeks. 100 Worse still for the Japanese was 
their failure to destroy Pearl Harbor as a functioning 



37 



naval base. (The attack was directed against the fleet, 
not the harbor.) Shore installations, including machine 
shops and the tremendous oil storage facility adjacent 
to Pearl Harbor, were left pretty much intact, which 
permitted the U.S. Navy to continue to operate from 
Pearl Harbor. Gordon Prange believed that Nagumo's 
failure to "pulverize the Pearl Harbor base" and "to 
seek out and sink America's carriers" was Japan's "first 
and probably greatest strategic error of the entire Pacific 
conflict." 101 The destruction of Pearl Harbor or the 
invasion and occupation of the Hawaiian Islands would 
have compelled the Navy to operate from the American 
West Coast, adding another 3,000 miles of distance to 
be surmounted before grappling with the Japanese in 
the Central and Southwestern Pacific. After the war, 
Minoru Genda, the brilliant Japanese naval aviator 
who planned the details of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 
lamented the Japanese failure to invade Hawaii, which 
he blamed on the IJA's preoccupation with eventual 
war against the Soviet Union and unwillingness to 
release (from Manchuria) the divisions necessary to 
take Hawaii. "After the attack on Pearl Harbor," he 
said, "we could have taken Honolulu pretty easily. 
This would have deprived the American Navy of its 
best island base in the Pacific [and] would have cut 
the lifeline to Australia, and that country might have 
fallen to us like a ripe plum." 102 Japanese possession 
of Hawaii and Australia would have deprived the 
United States of the indispensable base from which to 
challenge Japanese control of Southeast Asia. 

Yet Yamamoto's objective in the Pearl Harbor attack 
was limited: to knock out the U.S. Pacific Fleet for at 
least 6 months so that Japan could conquer Southeast 
Asia without American naval interference. Pearl 
Harbor was essentially a flanking raid in support of 



38 



the main event, which was Tokyo's southward move 
against Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, and the 
Dutch East Indies. The possibility of occupying Hawaii 
was never seriously considered by either Yamamoto or 
the IJN's general staff. 

John Mueller has called the Japanese attack on 
Pearl Harbor a "military inconvenience" for the United 
States and a "political and strategic disaster" for Japan 
because it instantly galvanized American public 
opinion behind a total war effort that led to Japan's 
destruction. 103 At one stroke, Pearl Harbor demolished 
powerful isolationist opposition to Roosevelt's inter- 
ventionist foreign policy and ensured the eventual 
defeat of the Axis powers. 

Failed Deterrence. 

The Roosevelt administration attempted to deter 
Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia via three 
actions: (1) redeployment of most of the U.S. Fleet from 
southern California to Pearl Harbor in the spring of 
1940; (2) imposition of economic sanctions, culminating 
in the oil embargo of July 1941; and (3) a last-minute 
attempt to strengthen U.S. military power Southeast 
Asia, capped by the deployment to the Philippines 
of new-production B-17 long-range bombers (and 
Britain's agreed dispatch of additional warships to 
the Pacific). The California-based U.S. Fleet, slated to 
be subdivided into the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets in 
February 1941, was on maneuvers in Hawaiian waters 
when Roosevelt ordered it to remain in Pearl Harbor, 
believing that its open-ended presence there could 
deter a potential Japanese move into Southeast Asia. 104 
The decision to retain the fleet in Hawaii, which was 
strongly opposed by fleet commander Admiral J. O. 



39 



Richardson (whom Roosevelt replaced with Admiral 
Husband Kimmel), exposed the fleet to the very 
attack the Japanese launched on December 7, 1941. 
Intended as a deterrent, the fleet became a magnet. 
As Yamamoto remarked to a colleague, the "fact that 
[the United States] has brought a great fleet to Hawaii 
to show us that it's within striking distance of Japan 
means, conversely, that we're within striking distance 
too. In trying to intimidate us, America has put itself in 
a vulnerable position. If you ask me, they're just that 
bit too confident." 105 

The decision to reinforce the Philippines, which 
reversed a policy that had written off their defense 
because of the long-standing judgment that the islands 
were certain to be quickly captured by the Japanese 
in the event of war, was driven by an unwarranted 
confidence: first, on the part of General Douglas 
MacArthur (recalled by Roosevelt to active duty and 
commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Far East) in 
the defense of the Philippines, and second, on the part 
of Stimson and Marshall in the deterrent value of a few 
dozen B-17s based in the Philippines. 106 The Japanese 
were not impressed. They attacked the Philippines a 
few hours after Pearl Harbor and destroyed most of the 
islands' B-17 force on the ground. The hasty decision to 
build up U.S. forces in Southeast Asia "was a disastrous 
strategic miscalculation for the United States, because 
the belief that a scratch force of American bombers 
and a few British warships could be transformed 
into a 'big stick' that would force the Japanese to halt 
their advance southward was a gamble doomed to 
failure," contends Edwin Layton. On the contrary, by 
"embarking on a deterrent policy before the military 
forces were installed in the Philippines to make it 



40 



credible, Britain and the United States succeeded in 
making the concept of a preemptive strike an attractive 
option to the Japanese." 107 

Obviously, the United States failed to deter the 
Japanese, who preferred the horrendous risks of war 
with the United States over a humiliating retreat from 
empire. Those within the Roosevelt administration 
who believed the Japanese would not go to war with 
the United States were wrong. So, too, were those 
who believed the United States could deter a Japanese 
advance into Southeast Asia via such measures as a 
significant "forward" U.S. naval presence in Hawaii, 
economic sanctions, and B-17s in the Philippines. 
The United States sought to stop Japan without a 
war, but ended up provoking war. At no point in 
1941 did Roosevelt threaten war; he did not want 
war with Japan, and he undoubtedly recognized that 
"[n]o unequivocal warning could be given" because he 
"could not be sure of American reaction in the event of 
actual crisis." Roosevelt was "fully aware of the need 
to secure congressional approval for war, the strength 
of isolationist sentiment in the United States, and of the 
difficulties [of] demonstrating that a [Japanese] attack 
on British and Dutch colonies [in Southeast Asia] was 
a direct threat American interests." 108 

If the administration was prepared to go to war over 
a Japanese advance into Southeast Asia, it should have 
made that fact plain to Tokyo. Yet Roosevelt never did 
so. At the Placentia Bay Conference of August 1941, 
from which the Atlantic Charter was proclaimed, the 
British proposed identical parallel Anglo-American 
declarations to Tokyo, warning that "Any further 
encroachment by Japan in the Southwestern Pacific 
would produce a situation in which the United States 



41 



Government [His Majesty's Government] would be 
compelled to take counter measures even though these 
might lead to war between the United States, [Great 
Britain], and Japan." 109 Churchill did not believe there 
was much chance of stopping Japanese aggression in 
Southeast Asia short of a clear-cut threat of war by the 
United States and Great Britain, but was unprepared 
to issue such a threat except in conjunction with 
Roosevelt. But Roosevelt was unwilling to go that far. 
Yet it was: 

never clear what progressive economic pressure and 
the retention of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor were 
supposed to do. Roosevelt did not intend these as 
measures preparatory for actual war; he did want them 
to restrain Tokyo. But if the United States meant to 
deter Japan from taking steps regarded as threatening, 
it ought to have been issuing far clearer warnings, as 
the amazement of Tokyo at the asset freeze attests. If 
Washington hoped to hinder Japan's ability to make war 
whether as a hedge in case conflict came or to block the 
conquest of the southwestern Pacific and capitulation of 
Chiang's regime [in China], gradual pressure was a poor 
road to take. 110 

A few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, 
Roosevelt did make a solid pledge to the British 
ambassador in Washington that the United States 
would go to war in response to a Japanese attack on 
British or Dutch territory in Southeast Asia, a pledge 
that capped increasingly firm verbal assurances 
beginning in July. 111 Roosevelt had believed, at least 
since the formation of the so-called Axis alliance (the 
Tripartite Pact), that Japan and Germany were closely 
coordinating their agendas of aggression. (They were 
not. The Germans did not inform the Japanese of their 
planned attack on the Soviet Union, with which Japan 



42 



had recently signed a nonaggression pact, and the 
Japanese did not alert the Germans to their planned 
attack on Pearl Harbor.) Roosevelt also believed that 
the survival of Britain's empire in Asia was essential to 
Britain's ability to continue fighting Germany and Italy 
in Europe. Yet he never indicated to anyone, including 
the British ambassador, how he thought he could 
obtain a declaration of war against Japan in response 
to a Japanese advance into Southeast Asia limited to 
European colonies. What if the Japanese had attacked 
only Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies, 
leaving the Philippines and Hawaii alone? Could 
Roosevelt have persuaded Congress to go to war on 
behalf of European colonies in Asia? (On August 12, 
the House of Representatives had voted to extend the 
Selective Service Act by a single vote; but for that one 
vote, the U.S. Army would have largely disintegrated.) 
Roosevelt speechwriter Robert Sherwood, who be- 
lieved that Roosevelt and General George Marshall 
"were far more afraid of the isolationists at home . . . 
than they were of the enemies abroad," 112 described 
Roosevelt's dilemma in his Pulitzer Prize- winning 
biography of Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins: 

The Japanese were about to strike at British or Dutch 
possessions or both— and what could we do about it? 
The British and the Dutch were hopelessly unable to 
defend themselves and so were the exposed Dominions 
of Australia and New Zealand. . . . Without formidable 
American intervention, the Japanese would be able 
to conquer and exploit an empire, rich in resources, 
stretching from the Aleutian Islands to India or even to 
the Middle East; and it was idle to assume, and Roosevelt 
knew it better than anyone else, that there could be any 
formidable American intervention without the full, 
final, irrevocable plunging of the entire nation into 
war. And what were the chances of that [if the Japanese 



43 



struck only the British and the Dutch]? What would the 
President have to say to the Congress in that event? . . . 
Why . . . should Americans die for . . . such outposts 
of British imperialism as Singapore or Hong Kong or of 
Dutch imperialism in the East Indies? 113 

Hopkins recalled several talks with Roosevelt during 
the year before Pearl Harbor in which Roosevelt 
expressed concern that "the tactics of the Japanese 
would be to avoid conflict with us; that they would 
not attack either the Philippines or Hawaii but would 
move on Thailand, French Indo-China, [and] make 
further inroads on China itself and attack the Malay 
Straits." Hopkins then recalled Roosevelt's subsequent 
"relief" that the Japanese had attacked U.S. territory. 
"In spite of the disaster at Pearl Harbor and the blitz- 
warfare with the Japanese during the first few weeks, 
it completely solidified the American people and made 
the war upon Japan inevitable." 114 

A Japanese attack on American territory somewhere 
in the Pacific was the only event that could elicit a 
congressional declaration of war, and Roosevelt, 
unlike later presidents, respected the Congress's 
constitutional prerogative to declare war. It was also 
necessary that the attack appear unprovoked to the 
American people. Stimson testified in 1946 that such an 
attack was necessary to unite the country behind any 
war with Japan. Even though by late November 1941 
the administration knew that a Japanese attack was 
coming (a "war warning" was issued on November 
27 to all U.S. Army and Navy commanders), and 
"[i]n spite of the risk involved ... in letting the Japan- 
ese fire the first shot," said Stimson, "we realized that in 
order to have the full support of the American people 
it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the 
ones to do this so that there should remain no doubt in 
anyone's mind as to who were the aggressors." 115 



44 



Luckily for the Roosevelt administration, the 
Japanese obliged. Japanese leaders had come to regard 
war with the United States as both inevitable and — after 
the imposition of the oil embargo — urgent, and they 
seemed completely oblivious to the domestic political 
difficulties they might have caused Roosevelt by 
confining their attacks in Southeast Asia to British and 
Dutch possessions. The IJN in particular insisted that 
the United States and Great Britain were strategically 
inseparable (mirroring Roosevelt's view of Germany 
and Japan) and that an attack on the British and the 
Dutch in Southeast Asia was sure to provoke a violent 
U.S. response, and therefore that it was imperative to 
preempt the United States militarily. 

Unluckily for the administration, war with Japan 
might well have been avoided but for an unwilling- 
ness—in an age of Western territorial empires — to 
accept the legitimacy of any Japanese imperial am- 
bitions in East Asia (outside Korea), and but for a 
failure to appreciate Tokyo's probable response to 
economic sanctions that threatened to eliminate Japan 
as a respectable industrial and military power. A refusal 
to accept some measure of Japanese hegemony in 
Manchuria and North China (as the Japanese accepted 
America's self-proclaimed hegemony in the Western 
Hemisphere) precluded a negotiated settlement that 
might have enabled the Roosevelt administration to 
concentrate U.S. attention and resources on the Nazi 
German threat in Europe that it rightly regarded as 
far more dangerous than Japanese aggression in East 
Asia. And by airily jerking its lethal economic leash 
around Japan's neck to punish Tokyo for aggression 
that Washington was never prepared to resist by force, 
or even threatened force, the Roosevelt administration 
invited the very war in the Far East it sought to avoid. 



45 



"Instead of complementing his Europe-first strategy 
and orientation, the oil embargo threatened to disorient 
and distract [Roosevelt] from what he conceived to be 
his primary task by forcing Japan to consider war," 
conclude David Klein and Hilary Conroy. 116 Roland 
Worth, Jr., contends that "the U.S. decision to embargo 
90 percent of Japan's petroleum and two-thirds of 
its trade led directly to the attack on Pearl Harbor." 
Although "striking at the economic Achilles Heel of 
Japan was naturally appealing in light of its economy's 
comparative weakness, it only made sense if one were 
genuinely ready to negotiate a mutually acceptable 
compromise (which meant leaving Japan a good 
part of its empire) or if one were willing to risk the 
military retaliation that Japan . . . was quite capable 
of inflicting." 117 Bruce Russett agrees: "The Japanese 
attack would not have come but for the . . . embargo on 
the shipment of strategic materials to Japan. . . . Either 
raw material supplies had to be restored by a peaceful 
settlement with the Western powers, or access to the 
resources in Thailand, Malaya, and the Indies would 
have to be secured by force while Japan still retained 
the capabilities to do so." 118 The late historian John 
Toland, in his best-selling The Rising Sun: The Decline 
and Tall of the Japanese Empire, concluded that: 

America made a grave diplomatic blunder by allowing 
an issue not vital to her basic interests — the welfare of 
China— to become, at the last moment, the keystone of 
her foreign policy. Until that summer [of 1941] America 
had two limited objectives in the Far East: to drive a 
wedge between Japan and Hitler, and to thwart Japan's 
southward thrust. She could easily have obtained both 
these objectives but instead made an issue out of no issue 
at all, the Tripartite Pact, and insisted on the liberation of 
China. . . . America could not throw the weight of her 
strength against Japan to liberate China, nor had she ever 



46 



intended to. Her major enemy was Hitler. [The Pacific 
War was] a war that need not have been fought. 119 

Coercive diplomacy requires carrots as well as 
sticks, but the United States was never prepared to 
make any concessions to Japan, not even a temporary 
modus vivendi— for example, a return to the status quo 
ante before Japan's move into southern Indochina and 
the U.S. imposition of the oil embargo. Such a deal was 
actually proposed in late 1941 by Admiral Kichisaburo 
Nomura, Japan's ambassador to the United States and a 
staunch opponent of war with America, and endorsed 
by Marshall and Stark as a means of affording the 
United States more time to strengthen U.S. defenses in 
the Pacific. 120 In the absence of any attempt to conciliate 
Japan on crucial issues, U.S. coercive diplomacy was 
doomed to fail. George C. Herring, in his majesterial 
history of American foreign policy, concludes that: 

Had the [United States] abandoned, at least temporarily, 
its determination to drive the Japanese from China and 
restored some trade, it might have delayed a two-front 
war when it was not yet ready to fight one major enemy. 
Having already learned what seemed the hard lessons 
of appeasement [in Europe], U.S. officials rejected a 
course of expediency. Rather, they backed a proud 
nation into a position where its only choices were war 
or surrender. 121 

Conclusions. 

Japan's imperial ambitions in East Asia inexorably 
collided with Western interests in the region, and 
Japan's alliance with Nazi Germany, though of 
little operational significance, further alienated the 
Western powers. The Pacific War arose out of Japan's 
aggression in Southeast Asia, which was presaged 
by its occupation of southern Indochina in July 1941. 



47 



Had Tokyo confined its aggression to Northeast Asia, 
it almost certainly could have avoided war with 
Britain and the United States, neither of which was 
prepared to go to war over China. The U.S. insistence, 
after Japanese forces moved into southern Indochina, 
that Japan evacuate China as well as Indochina, as a 
condition for the restoration of trade relations, thus 
made no sense as a means of dissuading the Japanese 
from moving south. On the contrary, the demand that 
Japan quit China killed any prospect of a negotiated 
alternative to Japan's conquest of Southeast Asia (e.g., 
restored trade in exchange for Japan's withdrawal 
from Indochina). In effect, the United States went to 
war over China rather than Southeast Asia — a volte-face 
of enormous strategic consequence since it propelled 
the United States into a war with Japan over a remote 
country for which the United States had never been 
prepared to fight. The fate of China, even of Southeast 
Asia, did not engage core U.S. security interests, 
especially at a time when Europe's fate hung in the 
balance. A war with Japan was, of course, a war the 
United States was always going to win, but Japan was 
not the enemy the Roosevelt administration wanted to 
fight. The United States could have settled its accounts 
with Japan after Hitler's defeat had been assured. Was 
denying Japan an expanded empire in Southeast Asia 
more important, in 1941, than defeating Hitler? 

The roots of Japan's decision for war with the United 
States were economic and reputational. The termination 
of U.S. trade with Japan that followed Roosevelt's 
freezing of Japanese assets in July 1941 threatened to 
destroy Japan economically and militarily. A small, 
resource-poor, and overpopulated island state, Japan 
in the 1930s sought economic self-sufficiency and great 
power status via the acquisition of empire —just as Great 



48 



Britain had done. (The United States could preach about 
the evils of imperialism and "spheres of influence" 
because, as a huge, resource-rich, continental state, it 
had no need for an overseas colonial empire; nor was 
its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere effectively 
challenged by other great powers. Indeed, the Japanese 
viewed the Monroe Doctrine as justification for their 
imperial ambitions.) Kenneth Pyle, in his masterful 
assessment of modern Japan's behavior in the evolving 
international system, identifies "a persistent obsession 
with status and prestige — or, to put it in terms Japanese 
would more readily recognize, rank and honor." 122 
From the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, "Japan 
strove and struggled for status as a great power. Other 
countries in Asia were aware of their backwardness, 
but nowhere else was this awareness so intense and 
so paramount that it drove a people with such single- 
minded determination. It became a national obsession 
to be the equal of the world's great powers." 123 A 
fusion of state-centered honor and popular nationalism 
occurred in Japan that prompted "an instinctive need 
for recognition of its status in the hierarchy of nations, 
and the values of hierarchy provided a behavioral 
norm that focused and intensified the realist drive for 
national power. Establishment of Japan's honor, of 
its reputation for power in relation to other nations, 
became a goal sanctioned by inherited values and 



"1?4 

norms. 



Yet the end result of this drive for power, honor, 
and reputation was Japan's complete destruction and 
subsequent occupation by the United States. There can 
be no justification for a foreign policy that consciously 
propels a state into a war against an inherently 
undefeatable enemy. By the late 1930s, a fatal abyss 
had opened between Japan's imperial ambitions and 



49 



its material capacity to fulfill them. Japan simply did 
not have the resources to police Korea and Manchuria, 
conquer China, invade Southeast Asia, and defeat the 
United States in the Pacific. Japan lacked the necessary 
industrial strength, and what modest manufacturing 
base it did possess critically depended on imported oil 
and other commodities from the United States. Indeed, 
Japan's expanding war on the Asian mainland made 
it more dependent on imported U.S. commodities and 
finished goods. Japanese leaders refused to recognize 
the limits of Japan's power, despite the warnings of 
Nomohan and a continuing war in China they could 
never bring to a satisfactory conclusion. The very 
fact that Japanese leaders would consider sequential 
wars with the United States and the Soviet Union at a 
time when Japan was already militarily overstretched 
in China testifies to a fatal blindness to the strategic 
necessity of maintaining some reasonable harmony 
between political ambitions and military capacity. Like 
the Germans in both world wars, the Japanese seemed 
to believe that superior prowess at the operational level 
of war could and would — somehow — redeem reckless 
strategic decisions. 125 And again like the Germans, the 
Japanese, in the celebration of their own nationalism, 
were utterly insensitive to the nationalism of others. 

Honor may have dictated the Japanese decision for 
war in 1941, but "suicide before dishonor" was a policy 
choice the Japanese might have avoided had Tokyo 
been willing and able to temper its imperial ambitions 
and accept some measure of economic dependence 
on the United States. For Japan, the prosperous and 
relatively democratic 1920s and the postwar decades 
as an economic powerhouse and ally of the United 
States demonstrate 20th-century possibilities other 
than the path of autarky through aggression. The 1930s 
and 1940s were a tragic and— for Japan's victims — 



50 



murderous detour from what might have been— and 
later was. For Japan in the 20th century, good relations 
with the United States were always a prerequisite for a 
secure Japan, whereas war with the United States was 
always going to be a disaster. 

Still, it cannot be denied that, in threatening Japan's 
economic destruction (and consequent military im- 
poverishment), the United States placed the Japanese 
in a position in which the only choices open to them 
were war or subservience. "Never inflict upon another 
major military power a policy which would cause you 
yourself to go to war unless you are fully prepared to 
engage that power militarily," cautions Roland Worth, 
Jr., in his No Choice But War: The United States Embargo 
against Japan and the Eruption of War in the Pacific. "And 
don't be surprised that if they do decide to retaliate, 
that they seek out a time and a place that inflicts 
maximum harm and humiliation upon your cause." 126 
Roosevelt called the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 
"unprovoked." Was it? 

Lessons for Today. 

The Japanese- American interaction of 1941 that led 
to war yields several enduring lessons of particular 
relevance to today's national security decisionmakers. 
First, fear and honor, "rational " or not, can motivate as much 
as interest. The "realist" explanation of international 
politics as the struggle for power among calculating, 
self-interested states discounts fright, ideology, and 
pride as motivators of state behavior. Thucydides 
wrote that it was "the growth of the power of Athens, 
and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, that made 
war inevitable" between the two city states. 127 Clearly, 
it was the alarm inspired in Tokyo by the U.S. oil 



51 



embargo — and the absence of an honorable alternative 
to war — that made the Pacific War inevitable. 
Frightened national leaderships can behave recklessly, 
as can leaderships in the grip of powerful political or 
racial ideologies. The George W. Bush administration 
arguably overreacted to the horror of the September 
11, 2001 (9/11) al-Qaeda terrorist attacks by invading 
and occupying Iraq, a country that had no link to the 
attacks, and it was Hitler's racial beliefs that propelled 
Nazi Germany into its fatal invasion of the Soviet 
Union. Honor can be no less a motivator— witness not 
only Japan's decision for war against the United States 
in 1941 but also Churchill's decision the year before 
to fight on after Dunkirk. France waged two fruitless 
wars in Indochina and Algeria because French leaders 
believed loss of empire would diminish France's 
prestige as a world power. For reasons of honor, the 
American Confederacy, like the Japanese in World 
War II, fought on long after any reasonable hope of 
victory had vanished. Gordon Prange observed that 
the "Americans assumed, correctly, that Japan could 
not win a sustained war against the United States. 
What they failed to consider was one of the lessons 
of history: A so-called 'have-not' nation may well be 
possessed of a will and skill far out of proportion to 
her resources. A later generation of Americans learned 
this the hard way in Vietnam where, lacking the will to 
win, the U.S. suffered a humiliating defeat." 128 

Second, there is no substitute for knowledge of 
a potential adversary's history and culture. Mutual 
cultural ignorance was a major factor contributing 
to the outbreak of war in 1941. With some notable 
exceptions like Ambassador Grew, American foreign 
policymakers knew little or nothing about Japan or the 
Japanese. On the Japanese side, there were some, like 



52 



Admiral Yamamoto, who knew the United States well 
and respected American power and nationalism, but 
most Japanese leaders, especially senior IJA officers, 
knew little or nothing about America and Americans. 
Racial stereotypes prevailed on both sides, with the 
Americans, who had a long history of discrimination 
against racial minorities, including Japanese, believing 
the Japanese were a little yellow people incapable of 
waging war effectively against a modern Western 
power like the United States; and with the Japanese, 
who also regarded themselves as racially superior to 
their enemies, especially the Chinese, believing that the 
Americans were too materialistic and individualistic 
to muster the national discipline necessary for a long 
and bloody war. The Japanese were oblivious to the 
galvanizing effect their attack on Pearl Harbor was 
certain to have on American public opinion. 

Cultural ignorance continues to plague U.S. foreign 
policy. Americans proved to be as culturally ignorant 
of Vietnam and Iraq as they were of Japan, and it is 
testimony to that ignorance that the United States 
is probably the only modern country in the world 
where a person who speaks no foreign language can 
yet be considered well-educated. The United States 
came to grief in Vietnam and Iraq because of a lack 
of knowledge of the two countries "best described 
as comprehensive and spectacular," observes Dennis 
Showalter. 129 Colin Gray convincingly argues that 
America's "strategic performance" is still hampered 
by cultural insensitivity. 

Bear in mind American public ideology, with its emphasis 
on political and moral uniqueness, manifest destiny, 
divine mission even, married to the multidimensional 
sense of national greatness. Such self -evaluation has not 
inclined Americans to be respectful of the beliefs, habits, 



53 



and behaviors of other cultures. This has been, and 
continues to be, especially unfortunate in the inexorably 
competitive field of warfare. From the Indian Wars on 
the internal frontier to Iraq and Afghanistan today, the 
American way of war has suffered from the self-inflicted 
damage caused by failure to understand the enemy 
of the day. For a state that now accepts, indeed insists 
upon, a global mandate to act as sheriff, this lack of 
cultural empathy, including a lack of sufficiently critical 
self-knowledge, is most serious. 130 

Third, deterrence lies in the mind of the deterree, not 
the deterrer. To be effective, threatened force has to be 
credible to the enemy— i.e., the enemy has to believe 
that you have both the capacity and the will to what 
you threaten to do, and that what you threaten to 
do is unacceptable. The Roosevelt administration 
attempted to deter a Japanese military advance into 
Southeast Asia via an open-ended deployment of 
powerful U.S. naval forces to Hawaii, imposition of 
escalating economic sanctions, and a military buildup 
in the Philippines. Key members of the administration 
assumed that the Japanese could be deterred because — 
surely — Tokyo knew it could not win a war with the 
United States. But at no point along the road to Pearl 
Harbor did the administration clearly threaten war; 
nor did it understand, until it was too late, that Tokyo 
preferred the risk of a lost war to a shameful peace. 
Though the imposition of the oil embargo was clearly 
unacceptable to the Japanese, they opted for war rather 
than submission. They were provoked, not deterred. 

America's crushing latent military superiority 
over Japan actually encouraged war because it made 
the passage of time a deadly enemy. Small though the 
possibilities of even a limited victory were in 1941, 
they would soon vanish altogether as the United States 



54 



rearmed. Because the military balance was shifting 
irreversibly against Japan, Tokyo believed it had 
to initiate war as soon as possible to have a fighting 
chance. 

Fourth, strategy must always inform and guide 
operations. The Japanese never had a coherent strategy 
for achieving their myriad objectives in China 
and Southeast Asia. This absence of strategy was 
attributable in part to the unbridgeable gap between 
Tokyo's ambitions in East Asia and its available military 
resources, and in part to the Japanese military's focus 
on the operational level of war. The attack on Pearl 
Harbor was a crap shoot, a reckless roll of the dice 
with profound consequences which the Japanese never 
fully grasped because Tokyo never had a strategy for 
defeating the United States. The Japanese never had 
a clear or convincing picture of how a war with the 
United States might end; they seemed to believe, or 
at least hope, that early operational successes would 
somehow deliver ultimate strategic success. 

One is reminded of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, 
especially the prewar lack of postwar planning and the 
mismatch between the amount of force employed and 
the war's objective of Iraq's political reconstruction. 
War planning focused almost exclusively on the 
destruction of the old regime through a rapid 
conventional military campaign that would validate 
the effectiveness of "transformed" U.S. military forces. 
The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) sought a 
quick military victory and was oblivious to the potential 
force requirements for stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq. 
The apparent assumptions, at least among OSD's 
neoconservatives, were that Americans would be 
welcomed as liberators and that a stable democracy 
would naturally arise in Iraq once tyranny had been 
removed. 



55 



Fifth, economic sanctioning can be tantamount to an 
act of war. The economic sanctions the United States 
imposed on Japan in 1941 were probably the most 
ruinous of any in history short of wartime naval 
blockades. They were so destructive that the Japanese 
concluded they had no recourse but war. The damage 
that economic sanctions can inflict upon a state that 
is highly dependent on international trade can be 
equivalent to, if less dramatic than, an armed attack; as 
such, they can provoke a violent reaction. The common 
view of economic sanctioning as an alternative to 
war needs to be reassessed, especially by the United 
States, which routinely sanctions regimes it does not 
like. Sanctioning is an inherently hostile act intended 
to coerce the sanctioned state to alter its behavior in 
some very important way, and today some states, like 
Iran, have means of responding that avoid militarily 
challenging the United States head-on. 

Sixth, the presumption of moral or spiritual superiority 
can fatally discount the consequences of an enemy's material 
superiority. Clausewitz was right: the best strategy 
is to be strong. The Japanese were hardly the last of 
America's enemies to believe that a superior willingness 
to fight and die could neutralize or even defeat U.S. 
advantages in firepower and technology. Mao Tse- 
tung convinced himself that the superior motivation 
and tactics of the People's Liberation Army could 
drive the Americans out of Korea, and other enemies, 
including Saddam Hussein (during the Persian Gulf 
crisis of 1990-91) and Osama bin Laden, believed that 
the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and humiliation in Lebanon 
revealed an aversion to incurring casualties that could 
be decisively exploited. Facing a much stronger enemy 
can compel a belief in the offsetting superiority of 
one's own cause, race, or strategy and tactics. Indeed, 
irregular warfare offers the militarily weak perhaps 



56 



the only chance of defeating the militarily strong, 
although most insurgencies fail precisely because 
they are simply too weak to win without ultimately 
developing a capacity for regular warfare. Mao Tse- 
tung himself regarded guerrilla warfare as a transition 
and complement to regular warfare. "The concept that 
guerrilla warfare is an end in itself and that guerrilla 
activities can be divorced from those of the regular 
forces is incorrect," he wrote in 1937. "[T]here can 
be no doubt that our regular forces are of primary 
importance, because it is they who are alone capable 
of producing the decision. Guerrilla warfare assists 
them in producing this favorable decision." 131 Mao had 
great respect for the conventional military superiority 
of his enemies, as did the Vietnamese Communists for 
that of the French and the Americans. The Vietnamese 
Communists employed regular military forces, not 
guerrillas, to defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu in 
1954 and to overrun South Vietnam in 1975. 

Seventh, "inevitable" war easily becomes a self-fulfilling 
prophecy. A war becomes inevitable when at least one 
side comes to believe it. Japan squandered a potentially 
decisive opportunity to avoid war with the United 
States by attacking only Europe's colonial possessions 
in Southeast Asia. Absent the attacks on Pearl Harbor 
and the Philippines, Roosevelt would have found it 
extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, to carry 
the American electorate into war with Japan, and the 
Japanese would have gone on to secure the resources of 
the rest of Southeast Asia without arousing the armed 
wrath of the United States. By late summer of 1941, 
however, most Japanese leaders had come to regard 
war with the United States as unavoidable — and so it 
became as the Japanese moved to initiate it under the 
most favorable possible operational circumstances. 



57 



The assumption of inevitability encourages, even 
mandates, exploiting the temporal opportunities of 
striking first, especially if the military balance with the 
enemy is shifting in his favor. Preventive war, which 
is not to be confused with preemptive military action 
to defeat a certain and imminent attack, rests upon the 
assumptions of inevitability and unfavorable strategic 
trends. The claim of inevitability also can be used to 
excuse or justify outright aggression. The George W. 
Bush administration believed, or at least publicly ar- 
gued, that war with Saddam Hussein's regime was in- 
evitable and that it was imperative to start that war be- 
fore the Iraqi dictator acquired nuclear weapons. Unlike 
the Roosevelt administration, which mistakenly as- 
sumed that Japan was deferrable, the Bush adminis- 
tration assumed, or at least asserted, that a nuclear- 
armed Saddam Hussein would be undeterrable. It 
remains unclear whether proponents of war with 
Iraq really believed that war was inevitable and that 
Saddam was undeterrable; there was no persuasive 
prewar evidence that Iraq had a viable nuclear weapons 
program, but substantial evidence existed that Saddam 
was effectively deterred, and would have remained 
deterred, from using any weapon of mass destruction 
against the United States or U.S. forces in the Persian 
Gulf region. 132 What is clear is that the moral, strategic, 
and financial costs of the U.S. preventive war against 
Iraq have — so far — greatly exceeded the benefits 
claimed before the war by the Bush administration and 
its neoconservative supporters. 

The American experience in Iraq should serve as a 
warning to those who believe the United States should 
use force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from acquiring 
nuclear weapons. Some of the same neoconservative 
pundits and like-minded politicians who called for 



58 



preventive war against Iraq are now calling for war 
against Iran on the same discredited grounds that a 
nuclear-armed Iran would be undeterrable and that a 
war with that country, or at least its governing regime, 
is inevitable, and that it is better to have it before rather 
than after Teheran "goes nuclear." Yet short of an 
invasion and occupation of Iran, for which the United 
States simply lacks the necessary force (and political 
will), no military strike, even one based on exquisite 
intelligence, could promise anything other than a 
retardation of Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons. 
(The relevant lesson here is the 1981 Israeli air attack on 
Iraq's nuclear facility at Osirak, which simply reinforced 
Saddam's nuclear weapons ambitions and drove the 
Iraqi program literally underground.) Nor, despite 
the rantings of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is 
there any convincing evidence that a nuclear-armed 
Iran would be undeterrable; Ahmadinejad is not the 
Iranian government's primary decisionmaker, and the 
evidence strongly suggests that Iran is seeking nuclear 
weapons for purposes of deterrence and prestige, not 
aggression. 133 Moreover, Iran, unlike Iraq in 2003, is not 
helpless; it could retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq 
and oil tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf and foment 
terrorist attacks against American targets throughout 
the Middle East. The negative consequences of a U.S. 
(or Israeli) strike against Iran, which almost certainly 
would strengthen the current regime's political grip on 
the country, would likely far outweigh any short-term 
benefits. 134 

Surely, the United States is not condemned to repeat 
in Iran its preventive war debacle in Iraq. 



59 



ENDNOTES 

1. Quoted in Gordon W. Prange with Donald M. Goldstein 
and Katherine V. Dillon, Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, New 
York: McGraw-Hill, 1986, p. 499. 

2. Quoted in Kenneth B. Pyle, Japan Rising: The Resurgence 
of Japanese Power and Purpose, New York: Public Affairs, 2007, p. 
336. 

3. Quoted in Jean Edward Smith, FDR, New York: Random 
House, 2007, p. 518. 

4. Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service 
in Peace and War, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947, p. 387. 

5. Quoted in Sadao Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The 
Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States, Annapolis, MD: Naval 
Institute Press, 2006, p. 276. 

6. Quoted in ibid., p. 277. 

7. Raymond Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International 
Relations, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966, p. 68. 

8. Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of 
Pearl Harbor, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981, p. 279. 

9. Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, 
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 222. 

10. Colin S. Gray, War, Peace and International Relations: An 
Introduction to Strategic History, New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 
180. Emphasis original. 

11. Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, 
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962, p. 355. 

12. Haruo Tohmatsu and H. P. Willmott, A Gathering Darkness: 
The Coming of War to the Far East and the Pacific, 1921-1942, New 
York: S R Books, 2004, p. 1. 



60 



13. Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucy 'Aides: A 
Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, New York: Free 
Press, 1996, Book 1, Chapter 76, p. 43. 

14. B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, New York: Frederick A. 
Praeger, 1967, p. 269. 

15. Norimitsu Onishi, "Japan Fires General Who Said a U.S. 
'Trap' Led to Pearl Harbor," New York Times, November 1, 2003. 

16. David Kahn, "The United States Views Germany and 
Japan in 1941," in Ernest R. May, ed., Knowing One's Enemies: 
Intelligence Assessment before the Two World Wars, Princeton, NJ: 
Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 476-477. 

17. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 558. 

18. Smith, FDR, p. 528. 

19. See Alvin D. Coox, Nomohan: Japan against Russia, 1939, 
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985, pp. 1079-1090. 

20. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 35. 

21. For an incisive account of the deliberations of the British 
cabinet during the crisis occasioned by Germany's defeat of the 
French army and the British Expeditionary Force in May 1940, see 
John Lukacs, Five Days in London, May 1940, New Haven, CT: Yale 
University Press, 1999, especially pp. 104-161. 

22. Jonathan G. Utley, Going to War with Japan 1937-1941, 
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985, p. 157. 

23. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 372. 

24. Ian Nish, Japanese Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002, pp. 139-141. 

25. Sachiko Murakami, "Indochina: Unplanned Incursion," 
in Hilary Conroy and Harry Wray, eds., Pearl Harbor Reexamined: 
Prologue to the Pacific War, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 
1990, p. 148. 



61 



26. See Waldo Heinrichs, "The Russian Factor and Japanese- 
American Relations, 1941," in Conroy and Wray, Pearl Harbor 
Reexamined., pp. 163-177. 

27. Ibid., p. 163. 

28. Jonathan Marshall, To Have and Have Not: Southeast Asian 
Raw Materials and the Origins of the Pacific War, Berkeley, CA: 
University of California Press, 1995, p. 134. 

29. Harold Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, Vol. Ill, The 
Lowering Clouds 1939-1941, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965, 
p. 588. 

30. James William Morley, ed., David A. Titus, trans., Japan's 
Road to the Pacific War, The Final Confrontation: Japan's Negotiations 
with the United States, 1941, New York: Columbia University Press, 
1994, p. 5. 

31. Irvine H. Anderson, Jr., "The 1941 De Facto Embargo on 
Oil to Japan: A Bureaucratic Reflex," Pacific Historical Review, May 
1975, pp. 202-203. 

32. Edward S. Miller, Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial 
Siege of Japan before Pearl Harbor, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute 
Press, 2007, p. 162. 

33. Herbert Feis, The Road to Pearl Harbor: The Coming of the War 
between the United States and Japan, Princeton: Princeton University 
Press, 1950, p. 109. 

34. Ibid., p. 157; Miller, Bankrupting the Enemy, pp. 120-123. 

35. Michael A. Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search 
for Economic Security, 1919-1941, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University 
Press, 1987, p. 215. 

36. Utley, Going to War with Japan, pp. 126-132. 

37. Abraham Ben-Zvi, The Illusion of Deterrence: The Roosevelt 
Presidency and the Origins of the Pacific War, Boulder, CO: Westview 
Press, 1987, pp. 19-24. 



62 



38. Utley, Going to War with Japan, p. 126. 

39. See Anderson and Miller, pp. 191-204. 

40. See John Morton Blum, ed., From the Morgenthau Diaries, 
Vol. II, Years of Urgency 1938-1941, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin 
Company, 1965, pp. 348-359, 377-380. 

41. Roland H. Worth, Jr., No Choice But War: The United States 
Embargo against Japan and the Eruption of War in the Pacific, Jefferson, 
NC: McFarland and Company, 1995, pp. 115-117. 

42. Joseph C. Grew, Ten Years in Japan: A Contemporary Record 
Drawn from the Diaries and Private and Official Papers of Joseph C. 
Grew, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944, p. 469. 

43. Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State 
Department, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1969, p. 19. 

44. Ben-Zvi, The Illusion of Deterrence, pp. 67-76. 

45. See Worth, No Choice But War, pp. 197-199. 

46. See Anderson, "The De Facto Embargo," pp. 202-203; and 
Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, New 
York: Public Affairs, 2003, pp. 652, 676. 

47. See Ben-Avi, The Illusion of Deterrence, pp. 94-100. 

48. See Worth, No Choice But War, pp. 130-133. 

49. Quoted in Nobutake Ike, ed. and trans., Japan's Decision for 
War: Records of the 1941 Policy Conferences, Stanford, CA: Stanford 
University Press, 1967, pp. 147-148. 

50. Quoted in Ibid., p. 238. 

51. Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War, p. 263. 

52. Quoted in Ike, Japan's Decision for War, p. 282. 



63 



53. Worth, No Choice But War, p. 129. 

54. Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, p. 353. 

55. Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War 
1941-1945, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 
28. 

56. Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: The Decisions that Changed the 
World 1940-1941, New York: Penguin, 2008, p. 380. 

57. Quoted in Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor, p. 267. 

58. See Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War, p. 162; and 
Morley, Japan's Road to the Pacific War, pp. 120-121. 

59. Margaret Lamb and Nicholas Tarling, From Versailles to 
Pearl Harbor; The Origins of the Second World War in Europe and Asia, 
New York: Palgrave, 2001, p. 7. 

60. Ibid., p. 175. 

61. Spencer Tucker, ed., Encyclopedia ofWorld War II: A Political, 
Social, and Military History, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2005, p. 
1541. 

62. H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Pacific: Japanese and Allied 
Pacific Strategies to April 1942, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute 
Press, 1982, p. 61. 

63. Quoted on Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor, p. 183. 

64. Compiled from data appearing in Mark Harrison, "The 
Economics of World War II: An Overview," in Mark Harrison, 
ed., The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International 
Comparison, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 
15-16. Figures exclude landing craft, torpedo boats, and auxiliary 
vessels. 

65. Quoted in Ike, Japan's Decision for War, p. 225. 



64 



66. Compiled from data appearing in Harrison, "The 
Economics of World War II," in Harrison, The Economics of World 
War II, pp. 15-16. 

67. Compiled from figures appearing in Willmott, Empires in 
the Pacific, p. 116. 

68. Quoted in Morley, Japan's Road to the Pacific War, p. 288. 

69. Quoted in Ike, Japan's Decision for War, p. 139. Japanese 
naval strategy sought to lure the U.S. Pacific Fleet into an ambush 
in the Western Pacific. The strategy was based on the assumption 
that a Japanese attack on the Philippines would provoke the 
Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Fleet to come charging across the 
Pacific in search of the main Japanese Fleet. The plan was to 
attrite the U.S. Fleet as it moved through the Central Pacific via 
both submarine attacks and land-based air attacks launched from 
the Japanese-controlled Mariana, Marshall, and Caroline island 
groups. Against such a weakened U.S. fleet the Japanese believed 
they could inflict a Tsushima-like defeat at a time and place of 
their choosing. 

70. See Dennis Sho waiter, "Storm over the Pacific: Japan's 
Road to Empire and War," in Daniel Marston, ed., The Pacific War 
Companion: From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, New York: Osprey, 
2005, pp. 16-29. 

71. Gray, War, Peace and International Relations, p. 180. 

72. Quoted in Ike, Japan's Decision for War, p. 153. 

73. Quoted in Ibid., p. 207. 

74. Quoted in Morley, Japan's Road to the Pacific War, p. 274. 

75. Adrian R. Lewis, The American Culture of War: The History 
of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom, 
New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 59. 

76. Quoted in Prange, Pearl Harbor, p. 517. 

77. Grew, Ten Years in Japan, pp. 301-302. 



65 



78. H. P. Willmott, "After Midway: Japanese Naval Strategy 
1942-1945," in Marston, The Pacific War Companion, p. 178. 

79. Quoted in Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor, p. 292. 

80. John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the 
Pacific War, New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, p. 260. 

81. Coox, Nomohan, p. 1082. 

82. Richard K. Betts, Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense 
Planning, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1982, p. 134. 

83. Scott D. Sagan, "The Origins of the Pacific War," in Robert 
I. Rotberg and Theodore K. Rabb, eds., The Origin and Prevention 
of Major Wars, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 
324. 

84. Ike, japan's Decision for War, p. xv. 

85. Ibid., pp. xv-xvii. 

86. Noriko Kawamura, "Emperor Hirohito and Japan's 
Decision to Go to War with the United States: Reexamined," 
Diplomatic History, January 2007, p. 79. 

87. Ike, japan's Decision for War, pp. xxiv-xxvi. 

88. Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and 
International Ambition, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, p. 
133. 

89. See Fujiwara Akira, "The Role of the Japanese Army," in 
Dorothy Borg and Shumpei Okamoto, eds., Pearl Harbor as History: 
Japanese-American Relations 1931-1941, New York: Columbia 
University Press, 1973, pp. 189-195; and Edward J. Drea, In the 
Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army, Lincoln, 
NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998, pp. 26, 32. 

90. Akira, "The Role of the Japanese Army," p. 195. 



66 



91. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, pp. 43, 45; and Gordon 
Daniels, "Japan," in I. C. B. Dear, ed., The Oxford Companion to 
World War II, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 622. 

92. See Ike, Japan's Decision for War, pp. 77-90. 

93. Quoted in ibid., p. 86. 

94. Quoted in ibid., p. 78. Emphasis added. 

95. See ibid., pp. 138-147. 

96. Ibid., p. 152. 

97. Ibid., p. 152. 

98. Ibid., pp. 202-204. 

99. Ibid., p. 210. 

100. See John Mueller, "Pearl Harbor: Military Inconvenience, 
Political Disaster," International Security, Winter 1991-1992, pp. 
175-182. 

101. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 550. World War II historian 
Thomas A. Hughes disagrees. Hughes contends that Nagumo's 
six aircraft carriers lacked the necessary aircraft and ordnance to 
attack the U.S Pacific Fleet and destroy Pearl Harbor as a port facility 
and logistical support base. The exception was the mammoth oil 
storage facility whose above-ground tanks contained 4.5 million 
barrels of oil. Conversation with the author, November 3, 2008. 

102. Quoted in Prange, Pearl Harbor, p. 505. 

103. Mueller, "Pearl Harbor," pp. 191-194. 

104. See Robert J. Quinlan, "The United States Fleet: 
Diplomacy, Strategy and the Allocation of Ships, 1940-1941," in 
Harold Stein, ed., American Civil-Military Decisions: A Book of Case 
Studies, Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1963, pp. 
153-198. 



67 



105. Quoted in Hiroyuki Agawa, The Reluctant Admiral: 
Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy, John Bester, trans., Tokyo: 
Kodansha International, 1979, pp. 227-228. Emphasis original. 

106. See Daniel F. Harrington, "A Careless Hope: American 
Air Power and Japan, 1941," Pacific Historical Review, May 1979, pp. 
217-238; and Russell F. Weigley, "The Role of the War Department 
and the Army," in Borg and Okamoto, Pearl Harbor as History, pp. 
165-195. 

107. Edwin Layton with Roger Pineau and John Costello, 
"And I Was There": Pearl Harbor and Midway — Breaking the Secrets, 
Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky and Konecky, 1985, p. 133. 

108. Bruce M. Russett, No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical 
View of U.S. Entry Into World War II, New York: Harper and Row, 
1972, p. 50. 

109. Cited in Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An 
Intimate History, New York: Enigma Books, 2008 [1948], p. 277. 
Emphasis added. 

110. Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War, p. 271. 

111. Frederick W. Marks III, "The Origin of FDR's Promise to 
Support Britain Militarily in the Far East — A New Look," Pacific 
Historical Review, November 1984, p. 147. Also see James MacGregor 
Burns, Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, New York: Harcourt, 1970, pp. 
159-161; and Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American 
Foreign Policy 1932-1945, New York: Oxford University Press, 
1979, pp. 308-311. 

112. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, pp. 340-341. 

113. Ibid., pp. 336-337. 

114. Quoted in Ibid., pp. 335, 336. 

115. Quoted in Morley, Japan's Road to the Pacific War, p. 340. 



68 



116. David Klein and Hilary Conroy, "Churchill, Roosevelt, 
and the China Question in Pre-Pearl Harbor Diplomacy," in 
Conroy and Wray, Pearl Harbor Reexamined., pp. 130-131. 

117. Worth, No Choice But War, pp. x, 100. 

118. Russett, No Clear and Present Danger, pp. 45, 47. 

119. John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the 
Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, New York: Random House, 1970, pp. 
146,147. 

120. See Prange, At Dawn We Slept, pp. 358-359 and 369. 

121. George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. 
Foreign Relations Since 1776, New York: Oxford University Press, 
2008, p. 536. 

122. Pyle, Japan Rising, p. 62. 

123. Ibid., p. 98. 

124. Ibid., p. 109. 

125. See the author's "Operational Brilliance, Strategic 
Incompetence: The Military Reformers and the German Model," 
Parameters, Autumn 1986. 

126. Worth, No Choice But War, p. 219. 

127. Thucydides, in Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides, p. 16. 
Emphasis added. 

128. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, p. 752. 

129. Dennis Showalter, "Forward," in James S. Corum, 

Bad Strategies: How Major Powers Failed in Counterinsurgency, 
Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2008, p. 8. 

130. Colin S. Gray, "The American Way of War: Critique and 
Implications," in Anthony D. Mclvor, ed., Rethinking the Principles 
of War, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005, p. 29. 



69 



131. Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare, Samuel B. Griffith, 
trans., New York: Praeger Publishers, 1961, pp. 55, 56. 

132. See the author's "Why the Bush Administration Invaded 
Iraq: Making Strategy after 9/11," Strategic Studies Quarterly, 
Summer 2008, pp. 63-92. An expanded assessment of the subject 
will be forthcoming in Wanting War: Why the Bush Administration 
Invaded Iraq, Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2010. 

133. See Akbar Ganji, "The Latter-Day Sultan: Power and 
Politics in Iran," Foreign Affairs, November/ December 2008, pp. 
45-66; and Thomas Powers, "Iran: The Threat," New York Review 
of Books, July 17, 2008. Also see the author's "Retiring Hitler and 
'Appeasement' from the National Security Debate," Parameters, 
Summer 2008, esp. pp. 96-98. 

134. See James Fallows, "Will Iran Be Next?" Atlantic Monthly, 
December 2004; Whitney Raas and Austin Long, "Osirak 
Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear 
Facilities," International Security, Spring 2007, pp. 7-43; and Justin 
Logan, The Bottom Line on Iran: The Costs and Benefits of Preventive 
War versus Deterrence, Policy Analysis Paper 583, Washington, 
DC: Cato Institute, December 4, 2006. 



70